Nomad Rulers and the Modern World

Selda Altan

China’s Belt and Road Initiative, a government program of worldwide economic investments and foreign policy initiatives launched in 2013, has drawn attention to Central Asia as a zone of global power competition and has increased the visibility of academic publications on the region. While Chinese and Russian scholarship has underlined the role of these countries as civilizing forces in regional interactions, post-Soviet historiography on Central Asia and New Qing History have challenged the nationalist accounts of sedentary cultures that depict the steppe societies of Asia either as “barbarian hordes” or mere conveyors of cultural and economic exchanges across Eurasia.

Pamela Crossley’s new book, Hammer and Anvil, is a welcome addition to the chain of works that locate the nomadic empires of Central Asia at the center of world history, as generators and diffusers of universal ideas and institutions. Although the book is not a research monograph, it synthesizes new research with insights from classic works in the field, analyzing the ways in which the steppe peoples laid the groundwork for the emergence of modern thinking and rulership. Crossley invites readers to recontextualize Greek philosophy, South Asian and Middle Eastern religions, East Asian philosophies, and European political thinking in light of these early Central Asian developments.

The book’s eleven chapters analyze the nomadic regimes, mainly the Turkic and Mongolian states, and their interactions with their agricultural neighbors in chronological order: from pre-written history to the early modern period roughly in the 16th century. The author uses “Turkic” in a very broad, non-ethnic sense as a rubric denoting values, institutions, and political traditions that prevailed from 500 to 1500 in opposition to (but also in dialogue with) the laws and practices of agrarian societies. She approaches the later regimes in Russia (Muscovite), India (Mughal), China (Ming), and Korea (Joseon), as well as the middle and later periods of the Mongol and Ottoman empires, as “post-nomadic” states, whose social organization and political traditions carried the hallmark of earlier Turkic rulerships. This argument, of course, does not deny the historical evolution of these communities. By the time of Mehmet II, the author states, the Ottomans were not only masters of horse and sword, but also of gunpowder weapons. They perfected their diplomatic and military strategies mainly thanks to their unique position between the Christian and Muslim worlds. In this light, the devshirme system – implemented in the Balkans and some parts of Anatolia to staff the empire with servant-converts – can be seen as an adaptation of slave practices in Central Asia.

In rejecting Eurocentric and Sinocentric perspectives that marginalize pre-modern and nomadic Eurasia as the temporal and cultural other of modernity, Crossley’s account resonates with Janet Abu-Lughod’s systemic analysis of world history in Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250–1350. 1 Abu-Lughod, Janet. 1989. Before European Hegemony: The World System, A.D. 1250–1350. Oxford: Oxford Univeristy Press.  Both books construe Central Asia as a coherent unit with tangible links to adjacent regions, functioning as a conduit for ideas to flow through a cosmopolitan and syncretic world of languages, folk religions, and continental technologies. Yet, if the area covered by Crossley shows parallels to the Central Asian sub-system in Abu-Lughod’s 13th-century world system, Crossley traces the continuities across Eurasia with less rigid territorialization and more through intersections in social and political trends. For example, the author takes the dualistic nature of ancient Eurasian religious speculation as a basis for subsequent teachings (i.e., Buddhism, Zoroastrianism, Plato’s idealism, Confucianism, Manichaeism, Christianity, and Islam). She analyzes the Mongol Empire’s eclectic social and political organization – including the postal network, plural systems of laws, and administrative structure rooted in kinship ties and military needs – as a link between earlier cosmopolitanism of Eurasia and subsequent Turkic sultanates in the Russian steppe, India, the Middle East, and North Africa. In similar fashion, she situates Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527) in the last generation of European scholars inspired by Eurasian political and literary traditions before Asia was alienated as an object of knowledge in the European imagination. In other words, the author gives us a global history of Eurasian ideas without confining them to regions or ethnolinguistic categories.    

The maps in the book help capture the multiplicity and crisscrossing of nomadic and post-nomadic regimes in Eurasia. Even more helpful are the reading notes attached to each chapter. In addition to providing a topical survey of existing scholarship to those who are not familiar with the field, these notes point to future directions for research.   

Despite its geographical and conceptual breadth, the narrative presented in the book is, after all, a continental history and touches little on coastal Asia. We know that maritime interactions across Eurasia were formative even before the arrival of European nautical technologies. Especially after the expansion of coastal networks in the early modern period and the proliferation of knowledge-producing centers worldwide, it becomes harder to draw direct lines across the threshold of modernity. This is why the book’s argument on the early modern period is, while intriguing, less persuasive than its convincing treatment of earlier steppe regimes as a crucible of diverse Eurasian practices. Overall, the book’s strength lies in its depiction of Eurasia as a boundless time-space always moving and always in-the-making. Students who are new to the history of Asia and the Middle East and experts in the field will similarly benefit from the global perspective and historical sources offered in the book.