John Man

Rafts on a Sea of Grass

The History of Central Asia, Volume One: The Age of the Steppe Warriors


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In an age of specialists, Christoph Baumer is a rare creature: a generalist. Explorer, archaeologist, adventurer, enthusiast, historian, photographer – no one could be better qualified to tackle a subject so vast in time and space. He must also be a book lover, for this, the first of four volumes on the subject, is a gorgeous creation, with creamy paper, crisp design and perfect colour pictures.

He starts with drifting continents closing off Eurasia’s arid, grassy and often icy heartland, and takes the story through to humans coping with the challenges they faced. On coasts and rivers, we had it easy. That’s where big and successful cultures first arose. But the interior had very few rivers. What it had was grass, often scanty, but enough for cattle and horses, once people discovered how to ride, herd and breed them.

The grass is an inland sea flowing from north China to the Black Sea (and a little bit beyond, into Hungary). You get the idea driving about Mongolia today: huge landscapes, the occasional tent, no fences. It took great expertise to live as pastoral nomads, let alone build cities, but it was made to work many times over. Baumer describes over one hundred cultures. Many of them were no more than rafts on the sea of grass, drifting, fighting, conquering and being conquered, leaving few relics. Others anchored themselves for a thousand years or more. Very few of them left written records. We are lucky to have had Herodotus to tell us about the Scythians, but they lived on the edge of the grassy ocean. The majority can be known only from their remains.

Baumer tells the story chronologically over eight millennia, up until about 300 BC, covering every age, every culture, every slow advance, as people learned to herd, ride, build chariots and make composite bows so powerful that to use them requires a strength similar to that needed to do a one-arm pull-up. These advances, recorded in rock drawings by the ten thousand, left graves by the thousand. My own interest is in the Mongols, recent arrivals who are still waiting in the wings at the end of this volume. But in Mongolia it is impossible to avoid their predecessors. The Mongols’ heartland, today’s Khentii province, a day’s drive east of the capital, Ulaanbaatar, is dotted with Bronze Age khirigsuurs, graves of piled-up rocks hardly touched by the passage of millennia. They lie among slab graves and subtly patterned mini-megaliths known, from their most common motif, as deer stones. For a millennium, successive cultures polished and cut these stylised images of deer ‘flying heavenward at full gallop’, as Baumer puts it (or rather his excellent translator, Miranda Bennett – the original was in German). They are there still, often honoured with strips of blue silk and discarded vodka bottles. Some were uprooted and incorporated into slab graves and khirigsuurs. When was that done? Yesterday or three thousand years ago? Why? What were they for? Were the slab-grave and rock-pile makers of the same or different cultures? No one knows for sure, but Baumer summarises the discoveries and the theories. Much remains to be discovered. Despite the countless finds, this is still virgin territory for archaeologists.

Take the stirrup. The origins are obscure – stirrups certainly don’t go way back, because expert horsemen could do everything necessary without them, except stand up. The Huns had no stirrups when they exploded into the Roman Empire in the fourth century AD (the first ones in Europe arrived with the Avars in the sixth century). Hun skills have been resurrected by the Hungarian Lajos Kassai, who teaches horseback archery in Kaposmero, south of Lake Balaton. He can fire 12 arrows in 20 seconds, at a gallop, riding bareback. When exactly stirrups were invented is a matter of controversy. Some say it was the fourth century, in China, which sounds possible given that bad riders such as the Chinese had more incentive than good ones to invent the stirrup. But in the National History Museum in Ulaanbaatar there is an iron stirrup labelled ‘second century’. Have they got it right? No one knows, or may ever know until the opening of some yet-to-be-discovered grave.

Another example is the headdress. Around 2000 BC, in the Karakol culture of the Altai mountains, petroglyphs show figures – women perhaps – with very tall, conical headdresses. Such an object was found in a Scythian kurgan (tumulus) in Tuva in 2001, and dated to around 700 BC. Upper-class Mongolian women wore hats like this in the 13th century; Marco Polo brought one back with him when he returned to Venice in 1295. You still see these bogtas in Mongolia today, though admittedly mostly on stage and in tourist shows. Why have the women of central Asia preserved a fashion for towering headdresses for three thousand years? Baumer may not have all the answers, but at least we now know the questions.

A veteran of a lifetime of expeditions, Baumer has written encyclopaedically, and provides a massive multilingual bibliography and 23 pages of notes. But this is more than an encyclopaedia. It’s a cultural guidebook on a grand scale. Baumer avoids the personal, though he could write many volumes on that subject. A wonderful shot of the author’s camel caravan in the sandy wastes of the Taklamakan is about the only direct personal reference. On the other hand, the whole book is stamped with his personality, with his superb pictures (remarkably well lit, even in the most extreme circumstances) and maps based on satellite shots and boxed asides that he calls ‘excursi’, as if they were strolls through an intellectual landscape.

Still, in human terms, the landscape is peopled only with shadows. The journey is only a quarter done, the start of a truly monumental undertaking.


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