Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia's Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane

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In this sweeping and richly illustrated history, S. Frederick Starr tells the fascinating but largely unknown story of Central Asia's medieval enlightenment through the eventful lives and astonishing accomplishments of its greatest minds—remarkable figures who built a bridge to the modern world. Because nearly all of these figures wrote in Arabic, they were long assumed to have been Arabs. In fact, they were from Central Asia—drawn from the Persianate and Turkic peoples of a region that today extends from Kazakhstan southward through Afghanistan, and from the easternmost province of Iran through Xinjiang, China.

Lost Enlightenment recounts how, between the years 800 and 1200, Central Asia led the world in trade and economic development, the size and sophistication of its cities, the refinement of its arts, and, above all, in the advancement of knowledge in many fields. Central Asians achieved signal breakthroughs in astronomy, mathematics, geology, medicine, chemistry, music, social science, philosophy, and theology, among other subjects. They gave algebra its name, calculated the earth's diameter with unprecedented precision, wrote the books that later defined European medicine, and penned some of the world's greatest poetry. One scholar, working in Afghanistan, even predicted the existence of North and South America—five centuries before Columbus. Rarely in history has a more impressive group of polymaths appeared at one place and time. No wonder that their writings influenced European culture from the time of St. Thomas Aquinas down to the scientific revolution, and had a similarly deep impact in India and much of Asia.

Lost Enlightenment chronicles this forgotten age of achievement, seeks to explain its rise, and explores the competing theories about the cause of its eventual demise. Informed by the latest scholarship yet written in a lively and accessible style, this is a book that will surprise general readers and specialists alike.

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Editorial Reviews

Library Journal
★ 01/01/2014
Starr (Central Asia-Caucasus Inst., Johns Hopkins Univ.) is that rare scholar with the horsepower to write about the medieval culture of this vast region that is bounded by Persia to the west, China to the east, and India to the southeast. He argues that much of what we subsume as "Arabic" contributions to the intellectual life of medieval Islam, because they were expressed in the Arabic language, should be termed Central Asian instead because the region was not simply Islamic. It was rich in polymath scholars who used geometry, mathematics, and formal logic to explore a variety of subjects with astonishing results. Starr is convincing that Central Asia was for centuries "the center of the intellectual world." By the late 11th century, when the Persian divine Al-Ghazali attacked reason and intellectual disagreement in defense of faith, the atmosphere of intellectual openness that made this rich ferment of ideas possible had dissipated. Central Asia's intellectual dominance of the Islamic world soon ended. Starr's spacious book enables him, for example, to discourse at length on such subjects as Al-Biruni's remarkable 11th-century history of India, an early monument of cultural anthropology. VERDICT An indispensable title for scholars, this lively study should prove equally compelling to serious lay readers with an interest in Arabic and medieval thought.—David Keymer, Modesto, CA
From the Publisher
Honorable Mention for the 2013 PROSE Award in European and World History, Association of American Publishers
One of Choice's Outstanding Academic Titles for 2014

"A fantastic book."—President Ashraf Ghani of Afghanistan

"Lost Enlightenment is a remarkable and accessible scholarly tour de force."—David Morgan, Times Literary Supplement

"Starr argues rightly that the region's brilliant culture rested on a highly cosmopolitan mix of ethnic groups, languages and religions; a long, rich pre-Islamic intellectual tradition (mainly Buddhist); and prosperity. . . . Starr shines in his core chapters, where he presents the great achievements of the Central Asian philosopher-scientists at a time when their homeland was the creative intellectual capital of the world."Nature

"Starr is that rare scholar with the horsepower to write about the medieval culture of this vast region that is bounded by Persia to the west, and China to the east, and India to the southeast. . . . An indispensable title for scholars, this lively study should prove equally compelling to serious lay readers with an interest in Arabic and medieval thought."Library Journal, starred review

"In this graceful, luxuriant history, Starr recovers the stunning contributions of Central Asia scientists, architects, artists, engineers, and historians during the four centuries that began just before the Arab onslaught of the eight century and lasted until the Mongol siege in the thirteenth century. . . . The book offers a lucid exploration of the era's intricate philosophical and theological debates and a succinct depiction of its poetry and art, enhanced by many illustrations."Foreign Affairs

"Lost Enlightenment is a most amazing book, one with—if we are lucky—the potential to shape global public thinking for decades ahead. . . . Lost Enlightenment is an entirely readable, informative and even entertaining book. Although it might surely serve as an inspiration to the modern inhabitants of Central Asia, it should also serve as a warning to any modern nation and civilization that it is tempted to intolerance."—Dimitry Chen, Asian Review of Books

"Starr undertakes a daunting task—the intellectual history of Central Asia through the medieval period. Happily, he succeeds. . . . Starr's book is thorough and well researched, and includes ample supplemental material and sources, so that even novice students will find it instructive and useful without being overwhelming."Choice

"This favorable account of Central Asia's intellectual life will enhance any reader's perception of Central Asia and challenge further investigation."—Isenbike Togan, Bogazici Journal

"This book does a marvelous job of highlighting the contributions of medieval intellectuals from Central Asia to the history of world civilizations. . . . It is a very informative and readable book."—Richard Foltz, Fezana Journal

"In the book Lost Enlightenment, historian S. Frederick Starr chronicles the long tradition of scientists, mathematicians, engineers and literary intellectuals that flourished in the Iranian- and Turkish-speaking regions of Central Asia."—Noah Smith, Bloomberg View

"This book is a must-read for those wanting to understand the development of this vast region of the world and the cultural and religious tides that gave rise to the conflicts we face today."—Carl G. Schuster, Explorers Journal

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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780691157733
  • Publisher: Princeton University Press
  • Publication date: 10/13/2013
  • Pages: 696
  • Sales rank: 332,962
  • Product dimensions: 6.40 (w) x 9.50 (h) x 1.90 (d)

Meet the Author

S. Frederick Starr is founding chairman of the Central Asia-Caucasus Institute & Silk Road Studies Program, a research and policy center affiliated with the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies and the Institute for Security and Development Policy in Stockholm. A past president of Oberlin College and the Aspen Institute, he began his career in classical archaeology, excavating at Gordium in modern Turkey and mapping the Persian Royal Road.

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Table of Contents

List of Illustrations ix
Preface xiii
Dramatis Personae xxi
Chronology xxxi
Chapter 1 The Center of the World 1
Chapter 2 Worldly Urbanists, Ancient Land 28
Chapter 3 A Cauldron of Skills, Ideas, and Faiths 62
Chapter 4 How Arabs Conquered Central Asia and Central Asia Then Set the Stage to Conquer Baghdad 101
Chapter 5 East Wind over Baghdad 126
Chapter 6 Wandering Scholars 156
Chapter 7 Khurasan: Central Asia's Rising Star 194
Chapter 8 A Flowering of Central Asia: The Samanid Dynasty 225
Chapter 9 A Moment in the Desert: Gurganj under the Mamuns 267
Chapter 10 Turks Take the Stage: Mahmud of Kashgar and Yusuf of Balasagun 303
Chapter 11 Culture under a Turkic Marauder: Mahmud's Ghazni 332
Chapter 12 Tremors under the Dome of Seljuk Rule 381
Chapter 13 The Mongol Century 436
Chapter 14 Tamerlane and His Successors 478
Chapter 15 Retrospective: The Sand and the Oyster 515
Notes 541
Index 611

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 4 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 4 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 23, 2014

    Coming to "Lost Enlightenment" as an enthusiastic read

    Coming to "Lost Enlightenment" as an enthusiastic reader of intellectual history, I found myself drawn--while reading the Introduction and a few pages afterwards--into shocking aggrandizement of Central Asia and unnecessary extolment of eminence of the region's achievements. I agree with other reviewers that the reader is left with the impression that the quality of that era has been forcedly raised. Perhaps because S. Frederick Starr chairs the Johns Hopkins University-based Central Asia-Caucasus Institute, he considers it necessary to produce an account, in which the region stands out as the hub of his own egomorphic features and professional tastes. For most of his recent career Starr focused on the region's energy and environmental issues, oil politics, Islamic faith and culture, as well as on political technologies that revealed his notorious support for local dictatorial regimes. Therefore, the historical, ethnonymic, and terminological components in his otherwise meticulously researched and richly illustrated book are sometimes flawed.

    To begin with, history knows no such era as "Central Asia's Golden Age". History knows The Islamic Golden Age, which started with the rise of Abbasid dynasty beginning in the mid-8th century lasting until the Mongol conquest of Baghdad in 1258. In the time period that Starr focuses his research on, that is, between the years 800 and 1200, Central Asia never acted as a self-sufficient region. Therefore, it could not independently "lead the world" in trade and economic development, as Starr wishes the readers to believe. The region constituted a part of the Abbasid Caliphate at the time, by the ascension of which the Islamic Golden Age was inaugurated. Starr's use of the term "Central Asia's Golden Age" is pure revisionism.

    Further, there is no such ethnonym as "Central Asians", as used by the author. Historically, the region has been closely tied to its nomadic peoples. During pre-Islamic and early Islamic times, Central Asia was a predominantly Iranian (Persian) region that included the sedentary and advanced Eastern Iranian-speaking Bactrians, Sogdians and Khwarezmians. After expansion by nomadic Turkic tribes, Central Asia also became the homeland for Turkic peoples, such as the Kazakhs, Uzbeks, Turkmen, Kyrgyz and Uyghurs.

    One cannot but notice Starr's prejudice towards the ancient Iranian populations, who played the most important role in the history of Central Asia. His usage of the term "Persianate" is dubious, as is his newly-minted ethnonym "Persianate people". The term "Persianate" refers to anything that is either based on or strongly influenced by the Persian (Iranian) language, culture, literature, art, and identity. It is, for the most part, the Iranian sedentary populations of the region that achieved breakthroughs in astronomy, mathematics, geology, medicine, chemistry, music, social science, philosophy, and theology. Central Asia was part of the First Persian Empire, or the Achaemenid Empire, that existed in 550-330 BC and then, after the expansion of Islam, a part of the Abbasid Caliphate, which heavily borrowed its governance system from the Persians. The language spoken by most of the inhabitants of the area was Persian (Farsi).

    I stopped reading on p. 18, where Starr wrote: "Present Iranians cannot understand these older writers on the account they were Persianite, not Iranians, and these present Iranians are something else". No, they aren't. Present-day Iranians perfectly read and easily comprehend Firdawsi and Omar Khayyam, because these and other figures, such as Biruni, were ethnic Persians, even though Biruni, for one, was born in Khwarezm.

    I believe the author could have done better job had he continued with education he had received from Princeton, instead of shady business of political technologies and suppression of freedom of choice of certain individuals.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 13, 2014

    I rated this book highly because it offers a thorough and rigoro

    I rated this book highly because it offers a thorough and rigorous view of a time and place about which I had pretty much everything to learn. I had just previously enjoyed a history of Iran (Axworthy's) and there was some overlap, but the exploration was still completely fresh to me. I was amazed at the low rating it had when I got here and, though I've never reviewed on B&N before, felt I should in this case because (not that it profoundly changed my life or anything) I am very far from imagining it deserves only two stars. I say this, please, with all fair credit to the opinions of the several reviewers who may rightfully disagree. I think if one considers that he might enjoy such a history as this, he probably won't be disappointed (unless he have the particular qualms listed below or some other equally specific and unexpected by the general audience).

    On which point, I have to be honest some more ignorance on my part: I don't seem to know anything about the offense Mr. Starr seems to have given by using of 'Central Asian' as opposed to something specifically closer to 'Persian.' Myself, I read the reviews which take this issue with his work and I can see there must be a misunderstanding somewhere; it's possibly mine, then. But I hope it may be of some consolation to any offended person that my reading of Lost Enlightenment left me with the impression that the "Central Asians" I was hearing about were (it would be unfair to say exclusively) "Persians" or, if not, generally members of "Iranian" or "Greater Iranian" societies. I think it is accurate to say that these societies were also located in that certain part of Asia which lies between and overlaps the traditional geographic boundaries of "the Mid East," "South Asia," "East Asia," so forth. If it may be of use to this question of recognition for the proper heritages, this reviewer read the entire book and did not find that Mr. Starr's use of the term "Central Asian" misled or clouded any due credit. He certainly mentioned Iran/"Persia" and related words continually. In my mind, the term "Central Asia," though it be an exonym, had a clear and plainly utilitarian usage, comparable in some contexts to using "the Mediterranean," indicating a large number of ethnic groups, polities, and religious bodies sharing a recognizable area, without giving a sense of discredit to the contributions of "Greeks."

    To acknowledge another criticism: the numerous wonders and geniuses Mr. Starr details make one wonder if there might be some exaggeration, is apt. I did start a running joke with m'lady that every random object I point to will turn out to be "Central Asian." But to be serious, this wonder arises, for my experience, more from an English language historiographic issue than anything. One may have read numerous sources alluding vaguely to the luminary careers of al-Biruni, ibn Sina, al-Razi, and countless others; to the storied legacy of Samarkand and other hubs of the Silk Road; and generally to the tremendous intellectual activity of "Islamic civilization" in this book's period. But for all this I had never been made aware of the correlation that so many of these people and events originated specifically in the same geographic and cultural region, and I didn't know the details of their brilliant legacies by having heard them alluded, either. One can readily check elsewhere if such-and-such persons really were born in the territory of Iran, say, if it seems amazing that so many formative ideas originated from Central Asia, which makes it all much more credible, if no less amazing. I would not say that one should withhold the grain of salt, but I would not say at all (as a social sciences professional, myself) that the level of bias-awareness required by this book is very great: Mr. Starr cites properly, is clear and frank about the less "brilliant" and flattering incidents that happen along (I was actually not expecting a less fair treatment of the Mongols, but his account was much better balanced than is typical in my experience), and over all was under par on exciting my suspicions.

    To repeat a general review I've posted elsewhere, Mr. Starr paints a very interesting picture of Central Asia and for very many centuries. He does not fail his claim that the region has a "Lost Enlightenment." The numerous parallels to the better known European Enlightenment are most striking: right down to the Brethren of Purity as a rough counterpart to the 18th century Masons (my comparison, not his). The huge debt which world civilization would seem to owe the nowadays-obscure region is most impressive. And at any rate you can be confident it's a good read if you did click for pre-modern Central Asia with any idea that the subject could interest you.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2014

    The author attempts to create a thorough and well researched his

    The author attempts to create a thorough and well researched history of the content of intellectual contributions in a very large area, from Baghdad east.  He carefully describes both the geographical and ethnic origin of these authors, and the reasons they wrote in the languages that they did.  There is also a great deal of general Islamic history to give context to the political and religious aspects of these works.  The author spent decades doing original research and is to be commended for this work.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2013

    The book has stolen and misrepresented what is called Persian c

    The book has stolen and misrepresented what is called Persian culture and literature as central Asian! The scholars he talk about were Persian speaking. And this part of central Asia a has always been part of Persia, Some parts separated in 19th century!

    0 out of 4 people found this review helpful.

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