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  • After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405
  • Ron Sela
After Tamerlane: The Global History of Empire since 1405. By John Darwin. New York: Bloomsbury Press, 2008. 592 pp. $34.95 (cloth).

John Darwin's comprehensive and ambitious account is a grand narrative of the history of empire since the beginning of the fifteenth century. Writing cleverly and responsibly, and offering, as such studies do, a synthesis of a substantial amount of scholarship (almost exclusively in English), Darwin seeks to explore what factors led to the globalized world of the late twentieth century on the one hand, and to the dissimilar trajectories of different major polities on the other. Underlining in particular various economic and political connections and circumstances, [End Page 165] Darwin sets to counter perceptions that view the history of the last six centuries simply as a European or Western triumph, and, if such a triumph did seem to manifest itself from time to time, it was certainly not meticulously planned or even well executed. In fact, Darwin claims, the European story should be read as part of a much larger tale and with more discerning eyes; discussing events in a remote corner in the western extremity of Eurasia should be accompanied by an analysis of events in its center, as well as in its southern and eastern limits. In that sense, Europe's expansionism may have been a function of Eurasian expansionism.

Europe's role in shaping the history of the world has been a contested issue for some time. Although Darwin generally accepts much of the criticism (postmodern, Saidian, postcolonial) of Europe's so-called hegemony, he still wishes—sensibly, in my opinion—to set some limitations to the critique, and not to hasten to dismiss Europe's profound influence on the world, both in its physical presence and in a more abstract sense.

However, although Darwin records numerous experiences and historical developments in China, Japan, India, Iran, and the Americas, Europe still stands at the book's core, and the author, in his attempt to reevaluate Europe's position and integrate it into the larger scheme of things, constantly returns to one troubling question (for him): Was Europe's ascent inevitable? The answer, in a nutshell, is generally negative, and the course that Darwin plots in order to explain his conclusion steers the reader through a labyrinth of challenges and complications in a well-written human history. Indeed, for some readers, especially for those among us who specialize in non-Western history, many of the details and investigations in this book are not new, and in some cases even outdated (much of the scholarship that Darwin draws upon is important, but he often ignores more recent studies). Other readers would be introduced to a compelling story of the strengths and frailties—above all the frailties—of empire in the past six hundred years.

In chapter 1, titled "Orientations," Darwin offers four assumptions (pp. 18-23) that guide his inquiry in After Tamerlane. First, the changes in Europe's role in world history were not linear and progressive, but occurred through a series of what he terms "conjectures." Second, Europe's expansion should be understood in its Eurasian context and in Europe's intrinsic intricate connections with other Eurasian civilizations. Third, "Europe" in itself is a tricky term, ever changing, sometimes stretching broadly (to include also North America and Russia), sometimes dwarfing to a lopsided geopolitical disunity. Fourth, "empire" should be viewed as a contested term, and while not necessarily [End Page 166] European, still embodying in many cases some distinct European features.

Darwin sets the stage for the beginning of the journey following Tamerlane's death in 1405, an event that the author sees as a turning point in world history: no more world conquerors emerging from the steppe, no more Atillas or Genghis Khans, but the birth of new processes that, relatively quickly, would discount the nomadic, the tribal, and the landlocked (both physically and figuratively) to favor the settled, the centralized, and the exploiter of the ocean. Darwin follows with a brief summary of a millennium of history of medieval Eurasia to prepare for the next chapter in his largely...