Home Up The Great Game

The History of the World in Just a Few Paragraphs


Central Asia has long captured the imagination of the West. There's something  magical and mysterious about the fabled lands of the Silk Road and the Khyber Pass. Don't you think the "Golden Road to Samarkand"  somehow evokes more imagination than "The New Jersey Turnpike"?...even if you do call it "The Concrete Road to Fort Lee"

Most of these lands were populated (though extremely randomly) by nomadic herdsmen. The inhabitants made a living raiding the tribe next door and carrying off their women, sheep and cattle, though not necessarily in that order.  Much of Central Asia is either arid desert or high mountainous terrain or commonly, a combination of both . Its' only luck was being stuck smack dab between the East (China) and the West (Roman Empire). This allowed the local citizenry to develop the science of "caravan raiding", with a minor in "slave trading" during the few hundred years of the Silk Road's prominence as a trade route.

330 - 300 BC 
(or BCE or BCM or whatever politically correct date suffix you prefer. A while ago, lets just say that)

Around 330 BC, a young Macedonian boy rode through on his way to India. Alexander the Great encouraged his men to marry into the local populations as they traveled, (even if he personally had no such urges) and this is why you see many faces in Northern Pakistan and Baluchistan with blond hair and blue eyes. The Kalash tribe in far northern Pakistan is though to be perhaps the last living link to the Greek conquerors.  There wasn't much here at the time, so Alex continued on his way to India where, unfortunately, he had a run in with some locals who didn't appreciate his requests for involuntary servitude, and plus he got some bad water or something in a fountain. He's buried somewhere out there in the hills.

1200-1600 AD

Of course, the first really big name to come out of Central Asia was Genghis Khan. This illiterate son of a low-level tribal chief  managed to get most of the Mongols to stop killing each other and start killing other folks instead. They burst out of what is now Mongolia and far western China in the 12th century, an army never more than 200,000 strong, yet so fierce and so tough that entire cities would lay down their arms and surrender at the news that the "soldiers of the Antichrist" were on their way.

I don't mean to glorify the killing and terrible destruction they caused, but it is worth noting in some ways, perhaps as a lesson for our own times. The city of Merv, for example, in what is now eastern Turkmenistan, resisted the advance of one Mongol army. After several months of siege, the exhausted  defenders gave up. The Mongols took every survivor out into the desert, man, woman and child alike, and cut their heads off. They piled 50,000 skulls on the road as a warning, and totally obliterated the city, a city which had been a major religious, trading, and learning center. To the surrounding countries, this would have been comparable to learning that the Nazis paved over Paris when they conquered it in 1940.

Yet oddly, the Mongols were quite tolerant once they established their reign. They allowed, if not encouraged, all religions, enforced a fairly enlightened (for the 13th century) set of laws, and promoted safety and relative freedom. During the "Pax Mongolica" from about 1250 AD to 1400 AD, it was said that a lone woman could walk in complete safety from the Alps to the Pacific, not that many did so.

Within a half century, the Mongols controlled the world from the shores of the Pacific Ocean on China's east coast, to the Danube in Hungary, and from the Arctic Circle to the Himalaya. This was the largest world empire ever established, before or since.  Fully two thirds of human population was in thrall to the Mongol empire. By 1242, fifteen years after Genghis' death,  Mongol armies crossed the mountain passes of eastern Europe and conquered the Baltic states, Hungary, most of inhabited Russia, and what is now Poland. They crossed the Danube and surrounded Vienna. They captured and destroyed the Russian city of Kiev. They had their sights on the rest of continental Europe and that little island off the coast of Belgium If you're not sure what I'm referring to, take a quick glance at a map. See what's northwest of Belgium?...)

But back in the remote Mongol capital of Qaraqorum, the Great Khan Ogedei, a son of Genghis, suddenly died. The other sons and nephews  turned back to Qaraqorum for the political in-fighting that marked the succession process. Had it not been for this minor event, there's a good chance most of us here in the West might be speaking Chinese Mongolian ( I've been corrected..) instead of English.

All good things must end, I suppose. By around 1500 AD the Mongol empire had withered away, or more accurately, was absorbed by its' subjects. Grandsons of Genghis ruled India ( Babur, founder of the Moghul Empire) and China (Kublai Khan, friend of Marco Polo), and other descendants governed Persia, Turkey, Manchuria, much of  what is now Russia and all the lands in between. Russia was a Mongol territory for 800 years. (Which of course, is one reason why the Russians have an almost pathological fear, hatred and distrust of Asiatic foreigners.

1492 AD

Nothing much else happened in Central Asia between 1300 and 1800. Mostly it was local tribes getting a snootful and raiding their neighbors on the other side of the mountain, or waiting for the odd caravan to stop by so they could ransack it. Scythians, Sogdians, Kushan, Gandarian, various local mini-empires sprang up, subjugated their neighbors, and were in turn overrun by the next wave of outsiders. HIndu, Buddhist, and Moslem waves each took their turn at running the place.

It was such a brutal area to have to travel through that some people decided to try to get to China the whole other way around the world - by sailing West. Late in the 1400s, an alcoholic Genoese boat captain managed to charm some leaky old tubs out of Queen Isabella of Spain, with the promise that he could find a better, safer route to the spices and silks of the East, even if it did take three times a long to get there. He sailed westward towards what he hoped was China

And you know how that turned out, right?


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