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Book Review


Peter B. Golden, Central Asia in World History. New York: Oxford University Press, 2011. Pp. 1 + 139. $19.95 (paper)


     Oxford University Press's "New World History Series" is one of the best recent contributions to the field of world history. This emerging, comprehensive series offers scholars, teachers, and students timely world history topics, both regional and thematic, in a concise, lively and scholarly fashion. A major goal of the series is to emphasize the connections (socio-cultural, economic, political, and religious) that cross boundaries among diverse peoples in an endeavor to write history from a global perspective. In Central Asia in World History, Peter B. Golden takes a complex region of the world and makes sense out of it by shifting the focus from a national and political framework into one that suits a largely nomadic population whose identities were determined by "clan, tribe, status, locale, or religion" (1). He argues that these factors were often "multi-layered" producing new ethnic entities over time as people and languages migrated throughout Central Asia. Throughout the book Golden emphasizes overland trade--a global process that operated in a region historians have referred to as the "pivot" or "heartland" of Eurasian history (1).

     The book is organized into nine chronological chapters. The Introduction points out that Central Asians have historically embraced two ecological niches and lifestyles: those who settled in the oases and the nomads of the steppe (1). Golden notes that interactions between these two diverse populations have "shaped much of our knowledge of Central Asia," as accounts from settled societies recorded the "primitive" way of life of the "barbarian" nomads (4). Chapter One provides an up-to-date explanation for the evolution of pastoral nomadism and its adoption of "low and high technology as circumstances required" (10). World history teachers take note: this thorough chapter is a goldmine for lecture material on the intricacies of nomadic society. The harnessing of horsepower led to more extensive migrations as well as the creation of a warrior society organized by clans and tribes. The upshot was the rise and fall of nomad states and empires as tribes conquered other nomads or settled societies. Commerce connected the people of Central Asia to the wider world; the nomads of the steppe provided the link to Eurasian cities as goods traveled from China through Central Asia to Persia and then on to the Mediterranean.

     Chapter Two emphasizes the third-century emergence of a new power on the Mongolian steppe, the Xiongnu, and the Chinese response. As part of their aggressive policy toward their northern neighbors, Han dynasty rulers initiated the construction of the Great Wall and established an era of Han-Xiongnu conflict and diplomacy. As they embarked on western expansion, the Chinese routinely sent royal brides and silk to pacify the "plundering" and "marauding" barbarians. To China's west, two nomadic powers emerged with important global consequences: the Kushan Empire (derived from the Yuezhi nomads who conquered the Graeco-Bactrian state) and the Huns. The Kushans promoted Buddhism, which subsequently spread across Central Asia into China, while the Huns advanced toward Europe and pushed the Germanic tribes across the crumbling Roman defenses. Golden remarks on recent scholarship connecting the origins of the Huns to the dislocated Xiongnu, and surmises that the "rise and fall of the Xiongnu pushed various nomadic peoples, in particular Turkic groupings," into the Kazakh steppe, where they joined into union with other tribes and finally "formed a new tribal union: the Huns" (33). This event illustrates one of the key themes of the book as stated in the Introduction, "the movement of peoples and languages and the creation of new ethnic entities" (6).

     Following the fall of the Xiongnu and the Han dynasty, Turkic nomads built new states in northern China, Mongolia and the Kushan lands. Between 552 and 766, a Turk Empire, stretching from Manchuria to the Black Sea, was divided into eastern and western administrative units called "qaghanates," each ruled by a Turk "qaghan" or ruler (36). This empire, Golden argues, became the template for all future nomadic states (49). Despite the adoption of sedentary administrative structures, Golden points out that "pastoral nomadism remained a mainstay of the Turk economy and horsepower remained the key to their military might" (43). Yet the silk trade, too, enriched and empowered the Turk Empire. Silk's value was so great that it also functioned as an international currency. While Turkish armies controlled the trade routes, the buying and selling of goods was carried out by the Sogdians, vassals of the Turks, who served as middlemen, moving the cargoes between their colonies along the Silk Road from China to the Mediterranean.

     Chapters Four and Five emphasize the significance of the silk trade in Central Asia as well as the arrival of Islam. Here the author focuses on the social and cultural history of the region--especially in the oasis city-states that dotted the Silk Road. The region was transformed once again with additional layers of people, religion, and languages alongside the old. Islam, which accompanied the Arab wars of conquest in the Middle East and Transoxiana in the seventh and eighth centuries, joined ranks with Buddhism, Nestorian Christianity, and shamanism. Meanwhile, following the collapse of the Turk Empire, waves of Turks migrated westward to the borders of Irano-Islamic Transoxiana where many became the prized "military slaves" of the Abbasid caliphs in Baghdad. By the mid-eleventh century, the Seljuk Turks, who had by then embraced Islam, overthrew their Abbasid overlords and "formed the ethnic building blocks of the Turkic peoples of modern Central Asia" (63).

     The now-familiar story of nomadic steppe tribes joining forces and establishing dominance over both settled and pastoral Central Asian societies reaches its climax in Chapter Six, "The Mongol Whirlwind." Golden notes that the Mongols "brought the steppe, the forest zone, and many of the neighboring states (China, Iran, Medieval Rus') into a vast world realm…[that] profoundly influenced global history, putting into place international networks of communications, the beginnings of an early 'world system' in the period between 1250 – 1350, the precursor of the modern world" (90). Following their initial destruction, the Mongols created a space where peaceful intercultural exchange could flourish. But Golden astutely reminds his readers that the Mongols were more than simply the architects of this great cross-cultural highway, rather, they were "active players in the exchange process" and that "cultural exchange went through a Mongol filter" (89). Chapter Seven highlights the preeminence of the Turkic language and Islam in Central Asia, and depicts Temür as "the last of the trans-Eurasian great nomadic conquerors" (95).  

     Up until the sixteenth century, the success of the nomadic peoples of the Central Asian steppe was directly due to their mastery in warfare; their skills in horsemanship, archery, and military strategy were unrivaled. But pitted against the new "gunpowder empires" that surrounded Central Asia, including the Ottoman, Safavid, and Mughal Empires, the increasingly politically fragmented region entered an era of decline that eventually led to Chinese and Russian rule. Trade in the region, however, remained steadfast and Golden takes note of new scholarship that challenges the notion that the new maritime trade routes to the East and to the Americas led to Central Asia's "economic marginalization and intellectual stagnation" (115). Instead, the types of commodities changed from luxury goods to agricultural products (the slave and horse trade still flourished), and the routes shifted from east to west to north to south. Central Asia became, ultimately, a Russian link to China.   

     Modern imperialism devastated an already waning Central Asia. In the Russian territories, mass colonization by agriculturalists began in the 1890s, and by 1914 Russians constituted as much as 40 percent of the population of Kazakhstan. Then in the 1920s, Soviet policy set out to create artificial "nationalities" in their Central Asian republics, each complete with its own history, literature, folklore, and language. Of course, all citizens were required to learn Russian and encouraged to reject the "backwardness" of Islam in the USSR's attempt to produce a new "Soviet Person" (135). In the 1930s, the Soviets completely transformed Central Asian society through collectivization and sedentarization and killed millions in the process. Today, the fragile nations of Central Asia continue to wrestle with their constructed identities while facing immense environmental problems, namely pollution and desertification--the legacy of Soviet rule. Meanwhile, in Xinjiang, the settled Turkic Muslim population began to promote "Uighur nationalism" (Uighur was a term unused for centuries) in the 1920s as a means to keep the Russians and Chinese, as well as local warlords, at bay. But the Chinese suppressed the movement after 1949 and "rewrote the history of Xinjiang, portraying it as an ancient possession of China" (138). As in the Soviet republics (and Tibet for that matter), mass migrations ensued, and today the Uighurs constitute only 45 percent of the population. Uighur resistance and separatist movements, nevertheless, continue to mark the region.

     By placing Central Asia into its appropriate historical context as a region of "shifting ethnic, linguistic, political and cultural borders" rather than attempting to write a conventional national history, Peter Golden has succeeded in shedding light on a complex region of the world (1). His presentation of Central Asian history in a "multi-layered" framework of tribes, languages, and religions that consistently mixed and moved over time illuminates, rather than complicates, the history of an important, yet misunderstood, region of the world. Scholars whose research drifts into Central Asian history will find this book invaluable, as will anyone who teaches the freshman world history survey. I plan to assign it in my undergraduate course on the Silk Road. It is recommended for both graduate and undergraduate students in any course that includes this part of the world. In fact, whoever needs to know a little, or a lot, about Central Asia can benefit from this highly readable, scholarly book. 

Mary Jane Maxwell is Assistant Professor of History and Religious Studies at Green Mountain College in Poultney, Vermont. She teaches Russian History, World History, World Religions, Islamic World and, starting this semester, the Silk Road. She can be reached at


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