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Journal of World History 12.1 (2001) 198-201

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Book Review

Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire, Vol. 1 of A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia

Inner Eurasia from Prehistory to the Mongol Empire, Vol. 1 of A History of Russia, Central Asia and Mongolia. By DAVID CHRISTIAN. Oxford: Blackwell, 1998. Pp. xxiii + 472. $66.95 (cloth); $28.95 (paper).

This is the first of two volumes devoted to the history of Inner Eurasia, a region that extends, according to the author's definition, from Moldova and the Ukraine as far east as Mongolia, and from Siberia southwards to the Merv (Mary) oasis and the Hindu Kush (p. xv). [End Page 198] Despite the great diversity of climates, landscapes, languages, religions, and modes of life, Professor Christian contends, Inner Eurasia can be treated as a single, coherent unit of historical analysis because its geography and ecology have posed distinctive problems that demanded distinctive solutions. Surveys of Inner Eurasia have often appeared to be mesmerized by a series of nomadic steppe powers. Christian's treatment represents a departure from this tradition in two respects. First, in terms of chronological coverage, the book begins with the earliest settlements by Neanderthal Man in the Paleolithic era. And in the second place, the accent throughout is on the frontier between pastoral nomads and sedentary, agrarian societies and on the symbiotic relationship between them. The reader's notice is regularly drawn to polities that were neither exclusively pastoralist nor completely characterized by an agrarian economy, and to peoples, like the Sogdians, who mediated the influences of sedentary culture to the steppe.

Inner Eurasia has been the scene of some of the world's most extensive land empires: that of the Hsiung-nu of the last few centuries B.C.E, whose territories bordered on Northern China and who conducted military operations in Turkestan, much further to the west; the sixth-century Turkish qaghanate, which was powerful enough to extort wealth and trading concessions from China, to make war on Sassanian Iran, and simultaneously to maintain diplomatic relations with Byzantium; and, of course, the largest of these empires, that of the Mongols, founded by Chinggis Khan at the onset of the thirteenth century. At times, as in the second millennium B.C.E (pp. 113-15) and with the resurgence of the Silk Routes during the era of the first Turkish qaghanate (p. 254), the region became the pivot of a "world-system" linking China, Iran, the Middle East, and the Mediterranean; and the exchange of goods, skills, and even personnel that justifies the use of such a term was surely at its most prominent under the Mongols (pp. 425-427).

Within the states founded by various Turkic people on the ruins of the Turkish empire, representatives of all the great world religions--Buddhism, Islam, Judaism, Manichaeism, and Nestorian Christianity --jostled for converts and the support of political elites. In the ninth-century Khazar qaghanate (ruling over the Pontic and Caspian steppes) we are confronted with the only state--between the fall of Jerusalem in 70 C.E. and the creation of modern Israel--whose rulers professed the Jewish faith, and in the Uighur empire of 744-840 (in what is now Sinkiang), with the sole instance of a polity whose sovereign officially adopted Manichaeism. Such allegiance did not, however, detract from the religious pluralism that characterized the states of Inner Eurasia. That pluralism was especially marked in the early decades of Mongol [End Page 199] paramountcy (though "tolerance," at p. 425, is hardly the word for a regime in which, for example, Islamic practices were proscribed that clashed with steppe custom).

One striking feature of the book is the attention given to the early history of Rus', a state usually excluded from histories of Inner Eurasia. The controversial origins of Rus' are dealt with in an admirably balanced fashion. Due weight is given to the catalytic role of Scandinavian warrior-traders ("nomads of the sea," to use the phrase...