LOST ENLIGHTENMENT: CENTRAL ASIA’S GOLDEN AGE FROM THE ARAB CONQUEST TO TAMERLANE by S. Frederick Starr

S. Frederick Starr, Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane. Princeton University Press, 2015 (first published 2013).

Lost Enlightenment is an ambitious and very readable intellectual history of Central Asia between the late 600s and the late 1200s CE. The first three chapters of this solid tome (over 500 pages, excluding end matter) set out to provide context: context for Starr’s endeavour, and context for Central Asia, which had a long and vibrant history even before the Arab invasions.

Further chapters centre on specific courts or specific figures, with significant space given to al-Khwarazmi, al-Razi, ibn Sina, al-Biruni, al-Farabi, Ferdowsi, and al-Ghazali, all figures who in their own way shaped the intellectual and cultural life not only of Central Asia, but of the entire Arab-speaking world and eventually Western Europe.

Starr accompanies this history of ideas and thinkers with a reasonably comprehensive discussion of political events affecting the region across this timeframe. His narrative occasionally tangles itself in confusion, as it does not always take either a strictly chronological or a strictly thematic approach. Lost Enlightenment‘s achievements are also lessened by Starr’s continually insistence on using comparanda from Western Europe: he assumes the reader is familiar with examples from Western Europe but not from Central Asia or the Arab world, whereas some of us (even Western Europeans!) are much more familiar with, say, Maimonides than John Locke.

For all its faults, however, Lost Enlightenment is a fascinating work and an excellent introduction to a region and a set of thinkers frequently neglected in Anglophone history writing. I don’t think there’s complete English translations of the works of any of the writers named above, with the exception of Ferdowsi’s Shahnameh – and where there are English translations, many of them date from a century or more ago. Perhaps Starr’s efforts to bring this intellectual heritage to wider appreciation will spur some press to bring to an Anglophone audience more of the primary sources on which his history depends.