THE HELLENISTIC FAR EAST: ARCHAEOLOGY, LANGUAGE, AND IDENTITY IN GREEK CENTRAL ASIA by Rachel Mairs

Rachel Mairs, The Hellenistic Far East: Archaeology, Language, and Identity in Greek Central Asia. University of California Press, 2016 (first published 2014).

This slender volume is specifically concerned to discuss the Graeco-Bactrian and Indo-Greek kingdoms in the region that today is eastern Central Asia, Afghanistan, Pakistan, and northern India. Mairs focuses on the archaeological remains, uncovered by excavation and by survey; the challenges posed by the evidence and the state of publication of the evidence; the difficulties posed by unprovenanced items (as a result of looting) and the interpretative challenges of investigating “ethnicity” and “identity” in a region whose inhabitants are very lightly represented in the surviving literature (Chinese and Greek) and that from the point of view of outsiders; and in a region where very little epigraphic evidence has come to light that may illuminate the self-understandings of the inhabitants of ancient Bactria in the three hundred years after the conquests of Alexander the Great.

Because of its prominence in the evidence, Mairs looks in detail at the city of Ai Khanoum, the Hellenistic urban foundation that has a Greek inscription which claims to be copied from Delphi, and posits a Bactrian architectural koine to explain some of its more unusual (as a Greek city) features. Mairs also looks at the relationship between settled and nomadic people in the region, and examines the explanations given for the fall of the Graeco-Bactrian kingdoms.

While brief, this book is really interesting, particularly from the point of view of identity in the “Hellenistic” world.

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.