Tuesday, November 15, 2011

Uzbeckibeckibeckistanstan is important.

Kazakhstan, Uzbekistan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan...*

Despite what Herman Cain may believe, these places are important.  I don't blame him for not wanting to know anything about them; indeed, in the West it's hard to find decent maps of Central Eurasia.  The borders and the topography are inscrutable: rivers and mountains are foreign sounding and difficult to place.  The Oxus, the Altai, Samarkand, Karakorum, Baikal: we have no references to these, and we can't find them on a map.  This place is on the periphery of Western culture.  Central Eurasia is the homeland of barbarians and nomads, forgotten places and forgotten peoples.  It is the Other.  The important cultural events happen elsewhere. 

Or do they?  A great grassland sea extends from Budapest to Vladivostok.  Its green and amber waves wash upon five significant civilizations: Europe, China, India, Persia, Arabia.  Over these steppes and prairies wash peoples, and with those peoples ideas, memories, and goods.  Here on the edges of the legible maps of civilization you'll find Islam, Buddhism, Nestorianism, Manicheanism, Taoism, Judaism, and even the paganism of the great open sky all rubbing elbows in ways that their prophets and proselytizers never imagined.

These are the lands of the Silk Road, and of Marco Polo.  The lands of Atilla, Tamujin, and Timur the Lame.  These lands created the stirrup, the composite bow, and the curved sword.  The brought silk, paper, and gunpowder west, and gold and silver East.  The journeys of these peoples are at least as important as the travels of the Spanish and Portugese by sea in later centuries.  But these peoples are all but forgotten.

Central Asia, the "Empire of the Steppes" as Rene Grousset puts it, has always been a land on the periphery.  This is the land of the Scythians of the Greco-Roman period.  Out of the sea of grass came Atilla and his Huns, who pushed the Goths westward and southward to trigger the final fall of Rome.  This land gave us three beacheads upon the shores of Europe: the Finns, a people apart from the rest of Scandinavia;  the Hungarians, who started out as the Magyars, but couldn't shake the reputation of the earlier Huns; and the Turks, who in their turn overthrew Byzantium, nearly came to occupy Eastern Europe, played a pvitol role in European history for 900 years, and who are still important to U.S. relations to NATO and to the Middle East.

We in the West almost remeber Genghis Khan.  He and his troops we vaguely think of as murderous barbarians and thugs.  It's true that our English word 'horde' comes from the Mongolian 'ordu'.  What we don't remember is that the Khanite was the largest contiguous empire in the history of the world.  We also don't remember that the Khanite practiced religious tolerance and freedom of conscience almost unheard of in the 12th century.  We forget that Genghis Khan is remembered in much of Asia as a unifier and builder of nations.  We also forget that it was the recall of Batu in order to establish an orderly succession that freed  Hungary and Eastern Europe from Mongol rule.

It is these people against whom the Great Wall was built.  The Khitai lent their name to northern China, remembered as Polo's 'Cathay'.  It was the Manchu who made Beijing the capital of modern China and re-instituted the civil service exams.  Kublai Khan founded the Mongol dynasty of China, the forerunners to the Ming.  Before the Hollywood elite knew the Tibetans as an occupied people, they were conquerors of their plateau.  It was memory of the pax Mongolia that led to the Mughal empire of northern India.  It was the hurricane that repelled the forces of Kublai from Nippon that first bore the name kamikaze.

Because this sea of grass and sand is the buffer zone between cultures, it will play a pivotal role in the 21st century.  We in the U.S. are in the habit of seeing Afghanistan as some sort of appendage onto the Middle East, peripheral to the culture and conflicts there.  Instead, we might see it as a nearer wing of the vaster stage of Central Eurasia, a place where West meets East.

In recent years, Gitmo has been home to a population of Uighurs, people that briefly became the bane of Western newsreaders who called them instead "Chinese Muslims" because that was easier to pronounce*.  Chinese Muslims?  Chinese, perhaps, because over the years they've become Sinocized, and because a majority of them live inside the lines on the map that China has claimed.  And muslim too, because in this buffer zone of Asia, many unexpected things are true.  But do the newsreaders remember that these are the people who gave their alphabet to the Mongols, the people who served as councilors and advisers in the 'civilized' art of government to Genghis Khan, his sons, and grandsons?  That they are muslim because under the Grand Khanite, there was freedom of conscience and freedom of religion?  "The religions are like the fingers of the hand," Tamujin once said.  Not bad for a barbarian.

In the 21st century, as in the last part of the 20th and before, Asia will be defined by four great powers: Russia, the Middle East, China, and India.  The place where all of these powers touch is an ocean of grass, with amber waves of grain.  Central Eurasia is important, and we might as well learn something about it.

* Nursultan Nazarbayev, Islam Karimov, Roza Otunbayeva, Emomalii Rahmon, and Gurbanguly Berdimuhamedow respectively serve as presidents.

** It's "Wee-goorr", by the way.

Googlebombing for a cause: www.minnesotangos.org


Anonymous said...

Autodidactism spoken here.

Well done, by the way. Someone needs to hire you as director of intel somewhere!

Lord Carnifex said...

Blame it on Renee Grousset's inestimably valuable and interminably long _The Empire of the Steppes: A History of Central Asia_ with a little help from Lord Kinross's _The Ottoman Centuries_ and, of course, the indefatigable Larry Gonick.