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Empires of the Silk Road: A History of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the Present Reprint Edition

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ISBN-13: 978-0691150345
ISBN-10: 0691150346
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Editorial Reviews


Winner of the 2009 PROSE Award in World History & Biography/Autobiography, Association of American Publishers

"Christopher I. Beckwith, professor of Central Eurasian studies at Indiana University, suggests in his recent book, Empires of the Silk Road (Princeton University Press), that 'the most crucial element' of societies all through Central Eurasia--including the ones analyzed by this exhibition--was the 'sociopolitical-religious ideal of the heroic lord' and of a 'war band of his friends' that was attached to him and 'sworn to defend him to the death.' This idea, he suggests, affected the organization of early Islam as well as the structure of Tibetan Buddhist devotion. In fact, this 'shared political ideology across Eurasia,' Mr. Beckwith suggests, 'ensured nearly constant warfare.' The region's history is a history of competing empires; trade became part of what was later called the Great Game."--Edward Rothstein, New York Times

"[T]his is no mere survey. Beckwith systematically demolishes the almost universal presumption that the peoples and powers of Inner Asia were typically predatory raiders, and thus supplied themselves by extracting loot and tribute from more settled populations. . . . With his work, there is finally a fitting counterpart to Peter B. Golden's magnificently comprehensive An Introduction to the History of the Turkic Peoples: Ethnogenesis and State Formation in Medieval and Early Modern Eurasia and the Middle East, based on Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, Greek, Latin, and European medieval sources. By reading just two books anyone can now sort out Charlemagne's Avar Ring, the Golden Horde, modern Kazakhs and Uzbeks, ancient Scyths, Borodin's Polovtsian dances (they were Cumans), present-day Turks, Seljuks, Ottomans, early Turks, and Bulghars and Bulgarians, among many less familiar states or nations."--Edward Luttwak, New Republic

"[E]rudite and iconoclastic, [Empires of the Silk Road] provides a wealth of new ideas, perspectives, and information about the political and other formations that flourished in that large portion of the world known as Central Eurasia. . . . [A] major contribution to Central Eurasian and world history."--Nicola Di Cosmo, Journal of Global History

"[T]his volume is certain to provoke lively discussion across the field."--Scott C. Levi, American Historical Review

"This book demands our attention and will stimulate interest and debate in many circles. The author is to be congratulated on a book that is both thoughtful and provocative in its call for a reassessment of Central Eurasia and its role in world history."--Michael R. Drompp, Journal of Asian Studies

"In the process of illuminating this essential piece of the human past, Beckwick constructs a scrupulously researched narrative that is wholly accessible, and demands close attention."--Nicholas Basbanes, FineBooksMagazine.com

"[Beckwith] is quite a feisty writer, as in his hot-tempered preface excoriating post-modern thought. . . . Prof. Beckwith is one of those scholars whose almost innumerable footnotes can be relished for their wonderfully obscure detail."--George Fetherling, Diplomat & International Canada

"Beckwith is the first to have carried off the feat of actually writing a history of this whole expanse of time and space in a way stimulating enough to make the reader think about it from start to finish. There is certainly something heroic about that, and this book deserves therefore to go into paperback very much as it is, uncompromised by any retractions that may be forced upon its author by others."--T. H. Barrett, Bulletin of the School of Oriental and African Studies

"The result of a lifetime's work on Central Asia and a complete overturning of many of our preconceptions. . . . Essential."--Hugh Andrew, Glasgow Herald (UK)

"Beckwith's arguments are persuasive, and backed by considerable empirical evidence. He is scrupulous about noting where the evidence is murky and noting where further research is needed. Beckwith provides an interesting Central Eurasian perspective on world history. . . . Empires of the Silk Road is work that any scholar who seeks to write about Central Eurasia will need to address closely. It is a benchmark--indeed a high one--for Central Eurasian, and indeed, world history."--Thomas D. Hall, Cliodynamics

"Empires of the Silk Road is never boring, despite its involved detail. I would recommend it to anyone with enough of a background in world history and linguistics to be able to cope with a mix of outright speculation, grounded contrarianism, and straightforward history, and willing to pass over, or be entertained by, chunks of politico-aesthetic moralising."--Danny Yee, Danny Reviews

"Beckwith, like the nomadic warriors he so admires, does not shy from a battle; indeed he seems to take delight in aggressive verbal swordplay. Many readers will be disappointed or even offended by his choices and preferences, and he will surely not mind in the least. His arguments in any case have the merit of inviting engagement, and his curmudgeonly writing style makes for an entertaining reading experience whether one agrees with his assessments or not. All in all, this book is a must read for students of world history."--Richard Foltz, Journal of World History

"This is an interesting readable book, and one that keeps the reader's interest through all of its 472 pages. . . . It is not by any means an encyclopaedia but the author is very thoughtful, and the book is a creative whole, and for this view alone the book is worth our attention, but with the extensive appendices and endnotes a place should be found for it in our libraries."--Roger Bantock, Middle Way

From the Back Cover

"Empires of the Silk Road is a major scholarly achievement. This is the first book to provide a comprehensive account of the history of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the present. But it is much more than a simple narrative of events in what is arguably the most important region for the development of civilization during the past four or five millennia. It is an intellectually ambitious undertaking that attempts to account for essential transformations in the cultural, economic, and political life of societies situated both within the Central Eurasian heartland and on its periphery. Beckwith achieves the radical feat of demonstrating how Central Eurasia is actually key for understanding the dynamics of human history and progress throughout antiquity, the medieval period, and the recent past. Above all, and for the first time, he convincingly shows that Central Eurasia was not a sump of poverty-stricken, unremittingly vicious subhumans, but a wellspring of vibrant, energetic, resourceful, enterprising peoples who facilitated communication and change in all directions. In other words, Beckwith turns conventional wisdom on its head and makes Central Eurasia the core of human history, rather than the embarrassing backwater which it is usually portrayed as. Perhaps his greatest contribution is in the powerful, sustained epilogue, where he shatters a whole galaxy of misconceptions about the dreaded 'barbarians.'"--Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania

"Ambitious, provocative, and bristling with new ideas, Empires of the Silk Road will set off sparks. The book's clearly articulated themes are lively and stimulating, and Beckwith's integration of European, Central Asian, and East Asian materials makes this a major work in Eurasian and world history. In range and depth, this readable book is quite unlike any other."--Peter B. Golden, Rutgers University

"Empires of the Silk Road is a major scholarly achievement. . . . Beckwith turns conventional wisdom on its head and makes Central Eurasia the core of human history, rather than the embarrassing backwater which it is usually portrayed as."--Victor H. Mair, University of Pennsylvania


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Product Details

  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press; Reprint edition (May 8, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0691150346
  • ISBN-13: 978-0691150345
  • Product Dimensions: 1.5 x 5.5 x 8.5 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 3.3 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (34 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #91,857 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

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Most Helpful Customer Reviews

146 of 164 people found the following review helpful By DaLaoHu on August 22, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I don't know where to start in reviewing this book. Perhaps the beginning is a good place. This book starts off well. The prologue concerning the hero myths and the origin of the comitatus seems curious at first but makes sense as the book goes on. The first chapter on the Hittites and the origin of the chariot I found fascinating. The second chapter was not quite as good, but the musings on the origins of philosophical thought and its possible diffusion via the Silk Road between China, India, and Greece was good food for thought. Which brought us up to about 500 b.c., at which point ...

The book just seemed to fall off a cliff. For the next two thousand years, the time period the majority of us are probably most interested in, all we get is a seemingly endless succession of names and dates, which tribal leader raided which tribal group, tra la tra la, with no maps and little indication of what is important out of all of this and what is not. One small example should suffice. On page 168 we encounter the sentence: "There Alp Arslan resoundingly defeated an army of the Byzantine emperor Romanus at the Battle of Mantzikert in 1071." That's it. No further reference.

Hello!!! Wasn't that the battle that initiated the papal call for the first Crusade, one of those seminal events in world history whose repercussions are still affecting the societies of Central Asia and indeed the whole world even today, almost a thousand years later? (Afghanistan, anyone?) You would think this might be a ripe field for discussion, but in fact there is not one single mention that the Crusades even happened. The Battle of the Bulge is in this book. Pearl Harbor is in this book. But not one single mention of the Crusades. Umm, wasn't that minor Central Asian group the Turks involved?
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78 of 91 people found the following review helpful By A. Mauer on June 23, 2009
Format: Hardcover
I purchased this book thinking I had found a Central Eurasian companion to Norman Davies' magisterial "Europe." Alas, "Empires of the Silk Road" is too strange to fit comfortably on the same shelf.

Though Beckwith makes many interesting points, particularly at the beginning of the book (the sections on national founding myths and the comitatus are worth a glance), one senses trouble on the horizon when Central Eurasia is defined, not geographically, but rather as any place where the "Central Eurasian culture complex" took root. Though there are doubtless merits to this approach, the result is that, instead of a history of the "Empires of the Silk Road," Beckwith has attempted to write a history of the entirety of Eurasia.

This approach becomes particularly problematic in the last third of the book, when Beckwith more or less abandons his supposed topic for meager summaries of 20th century events. Casting the 20th century in terms of the rise of "Modernism," the reader is given 1-2 page summaries of the Great Depression, First and Second World Wars, and Communist takeovers of Russia and China. Presumably, anyone interested in purchasing this book will have at least a passing interest in world history and therefore possess considerably deeper knowledge of these subjects than is presented; one is therefore left to conclude that these sections were included to allow the author space to snipe at Modernism, a movement that Beckwith never bothers to define but that he clearly loathes.

Furthermore, many of these summaries are risible. For instance, the Iranian revolution is cast as the overthrow of an innocent and benevolent monarch ("the young shah gradually began a wide-ranging liberalization and modernization of Iran...[leading to] prosperity, stability, and... growth").
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53 of 62 people found the following review helpful By History Reader on June 12, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Somewhere along the path to writing a history of the so-called Silk Road, Christopher Beckwith got lost in a diatribe about "Modernism" and all the accoutrements that accompany it. I'm not sure what the point was, other than to rail about the injustice of it all. That aside, there's much to commend here. Beckwith's mastery of the linguistics and philology of the Central Eurasia is impressive. Certainly his passion for the subject leaps off the page. And one can admire his efforts to rescue the peoples of Eurasia from obscurity and myth. The prologue and epilogue are worth reading in their own right. It's the detours into invective and moralizing that lead his caravan astray.
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34 of 41 people found the following review helpful By Adam Sivertson on June 21, 2009
Format: Hardcover
Writing a history of Central Eurasia from the Bronze Age to the present is clearly an ambitious undertaking given the vast geographical region, the large number of people groups, and the length of time. I have to give Christopher Beckwith a great deal of credit for attempting such a history and compiling a short narrative (~360 pages) that is at least somewhat coherent.

Beckwith did an excellent job of explaining the "Central Eurasian Culture Complex" and how it affected ancient Central Eurasian sociopolitical development. Chapter 10, which adroitly explained how the Littoral system created by European colonialism effectively shut down the Silk Road, was also particularly informative.

The rest of the book was difficult to follow without prior knowledge of the geography of Central Asia, the major people groups mentioned in the book, and how linguistics can be used to determine the movements of ancient peoples. The first five chapters were so littered with names of ethnic groups and their movements that it was virtually impossible to assimilate enough of the information to develop a general picture of what happened during those periods. Subsequent chapters referenced some of these groups, seemingly at random, so even though the history itself was easier to follow in those chapters, the obscure references made for difficult reading.

Unfortunately, the end of the book disintegrated into a lengthy diatribe about the deleterious effects of "modernism" and "populism" upon Central Eurasia. Because neither term was well-defined, it left the conclusions of the book in an unnecessary state of ambiguity. The diatribe was even more confusing because the book said almost nothing about the culture of these Central Eurasian groups.
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