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Lost Enlightenment

Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane

S. Frederick Starr
Copyright Date: 2013
Pages: 800
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  • Book Info
    Lost Enlightenment
    Book Description:

    In this sweeping and richly illustrated history, S. Frederick Starr tells the fascinating but largely unknown story of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment through the eventful lives and astonishing accomplishments of its greatest minds--remarkable figures who built a bridge to the modern world. Because nearly all of these figures wrote in Arabic, they were long assumed to have been Arabs. In fact, they were from Central Asia--drawn from the Persianate and Turkic peoples of a region that today extends from Kazakhstan southward through Afghanistan, and from the easternmost province of Iran through Xinjiang, China.

    Lost Enlightenment recounts how, between the years 800 and 1200, Central Asia led the world in trade and economic development, the size and sophistication of its cities, the refinement of its arts, and, above all, in the advancement of knowledge in many fields. Central Asians achieved signal breakthroughs in astronomy, mathematics, geology, medicine, chemistry, music, social science, philosophy, and theology, among other subjects. They gave algebra its name, calculated the earth's diameter with unprecedented precision, wrote the books that later defined European medicine, and penned some of the world's greatest poetry. One scholar, working in Afghanistan, even predicted the existence of North and South America--five centuries before Columbus. Rarely in history has a more impressive group of polymaths appeared at one place and time. No wonder that their writings influenced European culture from the time of St. Thomas Aquinas down to the scientific revolution, and had a similarly deep impact in India and much of Asia.

    Lost Enlightenment chronicles this forgotten age of achievement, seeks to explain its rise, and explores the competing theories about the cause of its eventual demise. Informed by the latest scholarship yet written in a lively and accessible style, this is a book that will surprise general readers and specialists alike.

    eISBN: 978-1-4008-4880-5
    Subjects: History, Philosophy, History of Science & Technology, Religion

Table of Contents

  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-vi)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. vii-viii)
  3. List of Illustrations
    (pp. ix-xii)
  4. Preface
    (pp. xiii-xx)
  5. Dramatis Personae
    (pp. xxi-xxx)
  6. Chronology
    (pp. xxxi-xxxvii)
  7. Maps
    (pp. xxxviii-xlii)
  8. CHAPTER 1 The Center of the World
    (pp. 1-27)

    In the year 999 two young men living over 250 miles apart, in present-day Uzbekistan and Turkmenistan, entered into a correspondence. They could have sent their messages by pigeon, as was often done then, but the letters were all too long and hence too heavy. The exchange opened when the older of the two—he was twenty-eight—sent his eighteen-year-old acquaintance a list of questions on diverse subjects pertaining to science and philosophy. Nearly all his questions still resonate strongly today. This opened a round of verbal jousting that, through at least four long messages on each side, reads like...

  9. CHAPTER 2 Worldly Urbanists, Ancient Land
    (pp. 28-61)

    The armies of nomadic Arabs that attacked Central Asia in the year 660 did not expect to find a tabula rasa. They had heard that the region was rich. Whether or not its inhabitants were ripe for conversion to the new faith, the armies lusted after the booty it promised. Since pillaging was the sole means by which Arab generals paid their troops, this was no trivial matter. On the Central Asians’ side, invasion from abroad was nothing new. Over the centuries they had learned how to absorb such blows, and how to deal with their effects. They were also...

  10. CHAPTER 3 A Cauldron of Skills, Ideas, and Faiths
    (pp. 62-100)

    A Chinese visitor to Samarkand in the century before the Arab invasion wrote in his notes the following observation on young people there: “All the inhabitants [of Samarkand] are brought up to be traders. When a young boy reaches the age of five they begin to teach him to read, and when he is able to read they make him study business.”¹ Another Chinese visitor, equally astonished, observed that young Central Asian men were not allowed to participate in trading trips abroad until they were twenty, prior to which time they were expected to be absorbed in study and training.²...

  11. CHAPTER 4 How Arabs Conquered Central Asia and Central Asia Then Set the Stage to Conquer Baghdad
    (pp. 101-125)

    By the seventh century the inhabitants of Greater Central Asia were all too familiar with conquest by foreign powers. Over the past millennium the armies of the Persians, Greeks, Kushans, Hepthalites, Parthians, Chinese, and Turks had all swept in and forced local rulers to submit to them. But then the conquerors faced the hard part. Each time, manpower shortages and other constraints forced them to turn governmental functions back to those whom they had just defeated, leaving behind just enough troops to keep the locals in line. If the victors’ goal was to extract tribute or collect taxes, there was...

  12. CHAPTER 5 East Wind over Baghdad
    (pp. 126-155)

    Who does not know of Baghdad’s golden age, the storied era of the Thousand and One Nights? The very name of the reigning caliph, Harun al-Rashid, conjures up images of Sheherazade telling tales and of court poets whiling away limpid evenings in opulent gardens. Our more earnest friends will remind us that ninth-century Baghdad was also a center of intellectual life, the place where purportedly “Arab sciences” reached their splendid apogee. All this was sustained by the caliphate’s unparalleled economic and political might. So rich were the early Abbasid caliphs that one of them, as a trifling gift to his...

  13. CHAPTER 6 Wandering Scholars
    (pp. 156-193)

    Few places were more intimately linked with physical mobility than Greater Central Asia. Nomads were seasonally on the move, and the economies of the great urban entrepôts rested on a foundation of continental trade. The long-distance routes to the Middle East, India, China, and Europe had been well established for nearly a millennium by the time Mamun began to staff his library. Anyone restless to travel had simply to attach himself to one of the frequent caravans that set off like slow-moving trains across the wasteland between the oases. As early as the fifth century bc, Central Asians from places...

  14. CHAPTER 7 Khurasan: Central Asia’s Rising Star
    (pp. 194-224)

    Misty-eyed readers of the Thousand and One Nights and Islamic fundamentalists have next to nothing in common, but both idealize the era of the Abbasid caliphs and its capital, Baghdad. Yet that city’s most brilliant phase proved very brief, and its decay prolonged. Within a few generations the mantle of leadership in philosophy, science, and the arts had shifted decisively eastward to the Central Asian cities. This process was hastened by endless internecine feuds, bloody coups, and civic strife within Baghdad itself. But it was caused equally by a new political and cultural dynamism within Central Asia.

    Perhaps this move...

  15. CHAPTER 8 A Flowering of Central Asia: The Samanid Dynasty
    (pp. 225-266)

    Around the year 940, when western European writers still aimed for the small circle of readers who knew Latin, and when most Chinese writers wrote for bureaucrats, a poet and singer at Bukhara, Abu Abdullah Rudaki, celebrated his role in society. He did it in three succinct couplets on “The Pen and the Harp”:

    Life is a horse, you are the trainer, your choice is to gallop.

    Life is a ball, you are the mallet, your choice to play.

    Although the harp player has delicate hands,

    May they be sacrificed to the hand that holds the pen.

    There is less...

  16. CHAPTER 9 A Moment in the Desert: Gurganj under the Mamuns
    (pp. 267-302)

    We do not know how Ibn Sina traveled to his new job in Gurganj, the capital of Khwarazm, more than twelve days by camel from Bukhara. He could have joined a caravan for the trip across the Black Sands (Karakum) Desert. More likely he went due west and then took a boat down the Amu Darya, a branch of which passed Gurganj before flowing another 370 miles northwest to the Aral Sea and the Caspian. Today we view Khwarazm and the Aral Sea region as a remote and forbidding desert. In 1004, though, it was known as one of the...

  17. Plates
    (pp. None)
  18. CHAPTER 10 Turks Take the Stage: Mahmud of Kashgar and Yusuf of Balasagun
    (pp. 303-331)

    Mahmud al-Kashgari, or Mahmud of Kashgar, was a man on a mission—several missions, in fact. He had been raised in Kashgar in what is now China’s westernmost province of Xinjiang. Through most of the twentieth century we thought of this region along the Tian Shan or Celestial Mountains as the fault line between the Chinese and Soviet Russian land empires. In the eleventh century it was the place where Islam, Buddhism, and the animism of the nomads all collided. Kashgari was a good Muslim, which is why in 1072 he found himself in Baghdad, home of the severely weakened...

  19. CHAPTER 11 Culture under a Turkic Marauder: Mahmud’s Ghazni
    (pp. 332-380)

    We left Abu Rayhan al-Biruni at a perilous moment. He had loyally served his besieged regent in Gurganj and then, after Mamun was murdered, negotiated with the enemy generals to secure the best possible deal for his homeland. He had not forgotten Sultan Mahmud’s letter to the shah of Khwarazm, Abu Abbas Mamun, demanding that he ship off the stars of Mamun’s academy to adorn his court at Ghazni in Afghanistan. He had put off Mahmud before but now realized that he was in no position to negotiate. In short order Biruni, then forty-four, and several other leading lights of...

  20. CHAPTER 12 Tremors under the Dome of Seljuk Rule
    (pp. 381-435)

    August 1095 was a painful month for the most influential, most powerful, and richest intellectual in the Muslim world. Abu Hamid Muhammad al-Ghazali (1058–1111) was the author of several widely admired books attacking all the freethinking Muslim philosophers who were oriented toward Athens and Alexandria rather than toward Mecca. He was easily the most prominent faculty member at Baghdad’s renowned Nizamiyya School (madrasa), only recently set up to prepare a new generation of Islamic jurists who would adhere strictly to orthodox Sunni principles. Ghazali was himself a highly competent practitioner of the formal logic that he was to criticize...

  21. CHAPTER 13 The Mongol Century
    (pp. 436-477)

    In the autumn of 1219 Chinggis Khan and a force of 150,000 Mongols and Uyghur Turks appeared suddenly beneath the high walls of Otrar on the Syr Darya near the southern border of present-day Kazakhstan.¹ After enduring a five-month siege, the defenders launched a desperate sally to break the Mongol ring. It failed and the Mongols killed all the warriors. Then the invaders drove all the civilians onto the plain, pillaged and burned the city, and put to the sword the entire population, estimated at 100,000.² Over the following three years, this grim process was repeated in most of the...

  22. CHAPTER 14 Tamerlane and His Successors
    (pp. 478-514)

    The last great outburst of cultural and intellectual activity from Central Asia was released by Timur the Lame, known in the West as Tamerlane (1336–1405). Like the cultural effervescence triggered by Mahmud of Ghazni, the early Seljuks, and Chinggis Khan, Timur launched his renaissance—if it can be called that—with a ferocious round of conquest that continued with only brief interruptions throughout his life. After this came a respite between the founder’s destruction of all who opposed his rule and the final breakup of his empire into minor states ruled by warring descendants. It was during this century-long...

  23. CHAPTER 15 Retrospective: The Sand and the Oyster
    (pp. 515-540)

    Events themselves defined the starting point for this investigation. The Arab conquest of Central Asia between 680 and 740, the Central Asians’ central role in the Abbasid revolution in 750, and Caliph Mamun’s capture of Baghdad in 819 opened a new phase in the life of the already ancient civilization of Central Asia. For several hundred years thereafter the area between what is now eastern Iran and western China and extending from Kazakhstan south through Afghanistan—in other words, Greater Central Asia—was the center of the world. Here were concentrated the world’s greatest entrepôt of trade and its most...

  24. Notes
    (pp. 541-610)
  25. Index
    (pp. 611-634)