Late last year, I picked up Empires of the Silk Road, as it looked very interesting.
And it is, I highly recommend it as an extremely well done history of a part of the world that most people just don’t know about from pre-history to the current date.
But—this book is not for the faint of heart. If you want some light informative reading, you will find the book overwhelming.
This especially holds true in the prologue and first two chapters of the book, where the footnotes and endnote references fly thick and furious. With all the flipping back and forth, and integrating the three different bits of text together, it can take over a quarter hour to get through two pages.
The reason for this is that for the early parts of the book, Beckwith is an expert holding forth on the more obscure parts of his field of expertise. He is well aware that almost everything he has to talk about hinges on specialized knowledge, and the footnotes and endnotes contain clarifications, and when he argues against the conventional interpretation, the general line of logic that leads to his conclusion.
That said, he does make some assumptions of knowledge. If you don’t know about linguistic reconstruction (and I’m lucky that I’ve run across it before), you’ll be wondering just what he’s talking about at many points, and what all those stars in front of words mean (which is a symbol for deduced, but not attested form of a word). As it is, many of the notes, and all of Appendix B, go pretty heavily into the field, and there are pronunciation glyphs I’ve never seen before.
Speaking of Appendixes, there are two of them, to go with voluminous endnotes, a Prologue, and a Epilogue. Appendix B goes into the reconstruction of the names of various peoples from Chinese sources, working out likely earlier forms of the names, and where those names can be equated with names in non-Chinese sources. Appendix A goes into his reconstruction of the initial diaspora of the Indo-European people, and the initial branching off of Proto-Indo-European into daughter families. I recommend reading it before Chapter 1, and Appendix B before Chapter 2, as they are heavily referenced in those sections. The Prologue is concerned with the “First Story”, which is a story cycle common to many Indo-European cultures (including the Romans) as a hero/foundation myth. The Epilogue is about the concept of ‘barbarians’ and how the modern conception of such is not only inappropriate to an understanding of the peoples of Central Eurasia (as he takes pains to point out during the book), but is inappropriate to an understanding of the original term, and some of original sources, but is especially inappropriate to use with Chinese sources, where several different terms for ‘foreigner’ that have little or no pejorative implications, are usually translated into English as ‘a kind of barbarian’.
The main part of the book is a history of Central Eurasia, or, more properly, the “Central Eurasian Culture Complex”. This history is delineated by broad cultural borders that change over time, not geographical ones.
I have to admit that there are large sections of the book where I am an unarmed man against some of his assertions. In general, I think his construction of pre- and early history are sound, but I don’t know enough to raise many objections. My main problem is that he seems to be a bit too strong of a Diffusionist for my tastes, asserting that the chariot was only invented by the Indo-Europeans, and allowed them to impose themselves on the various peripheral cultures.
The bulk of his book spends some time pointing the importance of trade, and the fact it is generally the peripheral civilizations that try to restrict trade, and the Central Eurasian civilizations often attack with the stated demand of opening up trade again. The Age of Exploration is looked in the light of one trade system (the Silk Road) being replaced by another (the Littoral System), with the current backwardness of the area resulting from the collapse of trade in the area.
The last couple chapters turn into a screed against Modernism. Again, I’m largely mentally unarmed against his assertions, but I judge he paints with entirely too broad a brush. He sees Modernism not just as a new movement that overthrew previous traditions, but as a movement that relies on overthrowing the old, and therefore has led intellectual life down the blind alley of continual revolution without trying to move forward with the results of any of those revolutions. He then ties that into to efforts of “Modernist” regimes to destroy the cultural past (as examples, the Soviet efforts to destroy religious community and the Taliban’s destruction of Buddhist monuments in Afghanistan).
Again, I do highly recommend the book. I have some potential problems with it, but it is far more important than those problems. I would certainly like to hear from people who can talk to my concerns better than I can, but in the end it’s biases are fairly clear, and the value of a history that ties together the events of such a large area ranks very high, also the bulk of the most interesting points of the book have not been touched on by me here. Finally, the notes do a valuable service in pointing out places where further scholarly study are desperately needed, and I hope that some of these gaps are directly addressed in the future.