Archive for the 'silk route' Category

August favourites #24: French writer

August 24, 2018

I’m going for a slightly unusual choice here, a writer who is of Lebanese origin, but writes in French and is a member of the Academie FrançaiseAmin Maalouf, whose work I have long enjoyed and admired. With my obsession with the Silk Road, I could not resist a novel called Samarcand, which links Omar Khayyam, Arab astronomy and also the famous poem, The Rubaiyat of Omar Khayyam, and was then hooked. But my favourite books of his are those set in the Renaissance world, such as Leo the African, which is an imagined account of the life of the real Arab traveller Leo Africanus, expelled from Spain as a child at the time of the Reconquista, captured by Christian pirates and employed by the Pope as a traveller and geographer, whose Description of Africa remained one of the most detailed and trusted accounts of that continent for many years. And then there was Baldassare’s Travels, in search of a mysterious lost book in the seventeenth century, and there’s another which goes back to very early times and tells the story of Mani, a prophet, seer and philosopher who came into conflict with established religion and paid for it with his life, at some time in the second or third century, as I remember.

From his position in one of the more conflict-ridden societies of the current Middle East, Maalouf also has interesting perspectives to offer on current affairs; Les Identités Meurtrieres I have found very insightful into what brings peoples, races and nations into conflict. Maalouf is clearly much better known in the francophone world than ours, and that is our loss.

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Ulugh Beg and historical fiction (again)

July 8, 2018

51kf4K3tuJL._AC_US160_This is the novel that prompted my reflections on historical fiction a few days ago; I’ve now finished reading it, and I quite enjoyed it, but I’m still not quite there with my approach to historical novels. There is no plot! And then, I realised, that if you’re writing a novel, almost completely peopled by real characters who actually lived, and the places they lived and worked, and their times, then there can’t really be a plot in the way we usually understand it unless a novelist is going to play fast and loose with the truth… there’s a whole can of worms here!

What I enjoyed about Luminet’s book – I hesitate to call it a novel, though he does, in a brief post-face – is the fleshing out of the historical facts about the world of Arab science in the time of the early Renaissance. There is local colour, description of places, characters and events are sketched out. But only sketched, never really developing beyond outlines, and never really feeling like fully developed characters, again because to do so would be to invent and superpose on a historical truth which we can never know, because we don’t have those facts to go with the real people. I’m interested in the Middle East, the past of those countries, their achievements, Islam as a religion and the ways it resembles and does not resemble the Christianity of our world.

But the lack of a plot is a real issue. We don’t even get a clear and logical explanation of the progress of Arab science at this time, and the book is populated by a wide range of characters who we lose track of, and need to remind ourselves about from time to time using the helpful index of persons, rather like the huge lists at the start of various lapidary Russian novels. Nothing unifies the text other than the idea of science, which can’t really sustain a novel.

The times, in the wake of Tamburlane and Genghiz Khan and various other empire-building characters, were chaotic, with all sorts of princelings jostling for power and advantage; there was also religious fundamentalism which Luminet explores, of the same kind that was to hamper the researches of Galileo in the Christian West; in short, not times conducive to unhampered and free scientific work. And if one of the key scientists is also meant to be the emperor and neglects the empire, then things will quickly unravel. No difference between the Islamic and Christian world, then.

Although I’m glad I read the book, I can’t see it’s one I’ll go back to, because of its deficiencies. But I will dig out again a history of Islamic science I read a few years ago…

Peter Fleming: News From Tartary

March 2, 2018

510EcZdDwsL._AC_US218_It was good to come back to this classic travel account from the 1930s, a journey through the unknown from Peking (as it was then called) to India, through wild and lawless territories, during various Chinese civil wars, without real authority and never knowing whether one might be turned back at any point… whilst making one’s way through some of the most inhospitable territory on the planet.

Fleming was a correspondent for The Times, and had made several other interesting and arduous journeys previously; he has that gung-ho British upper-class game-for-anything approach, without being a twit, and on this journey he travelled with the Swiss adventurer Ella Maillart, for the sole reason that they both wanted to make the journey, and thought it might be easier for them to succeed together; they survived the seven months that it took, and seem to have made a decent team, at least from Fleming’s account. It is clear how his admiration of her stamina and capacity for organisation and endurance – from an amateur like himself to the professional Ella, as he himself puts it – increasingly impressed him. I shall, sometime soon, re-visit her account of the same journey in Oasis Interdites.

It’s clear that the two of them were basically 1930s hippies with a ‘well, let’s go and see what happens’ approach. I am still astonished by the rudimentary nature of the gear that travellers took with them in the past; theirs included marmalade, cocoa, six bottles of brandy and… two typewriters! Fleming closely observes and record the details of their journey, and maintains a philosophical attitude to the possibility of failure. He is urbane, civilised, curious, interested; he takes the time and several chapters to clarify the various Soviet (and British, and Indian and Chinese) machinations going on in Xinjiang province. And he remains calm when faced with interminable waits and delays where they are at the mercies of various officialdoms and dare not insist too much given the inevitable irregularities of their situation… A dry sense of humour keeps him optimistic, and sane. His ode to tsamba, the staple diet of the region, is a masterpiece.

The regions through which they travel are incredibly remote; many people have never seen a European before. Just when you think they cannot head into somewhere more remote, they do. It is a seriously long, dangerous and gruelling journey, of the kind it is no longer possible to make in our times, and it isn’t just the phlegm of a certain kind of Brit, or the organisational capabilities of a more seasoned adventurer, that get them through the two thousand plus miles. It is the urge to do something not done before, to see if it might be possible. On Fleming’s part there is a certain amount of curiosity about the territory and its peoples, and a recognition that this world, so very different from the one he is heading back to, has its attractions despite its arduousness. The last stages of their journey, down into British India – the Raj – are positively surreal, both for the travellers and the reader.

Olivier Weber: Je suis de nulle part

February 3, 2018

51Em0ULZj1L._AC_US218_This is the nearest I’ve come to an account of Ella Maillart‘s life, although it’s written by an admirer, and is selective in its detail, rather too eulogistic to be a true biography. Indeed, I know of no other travel writer who seems to have established such a cult following of – worshippers is too strong a term – younger followers who seem determined to track her every footstep as far as is possible, in the quest for what exactly I’m not quite sure. Clearly, Maillart exerts quite a spell.

She spent her younger years learning to sail with a friend on Lake Geneva; she was a sporting type generally, uninterested in academic achievement or success. She came to crave adventure early, experiencing, in common with many others of her time, the strong desire to leave post-Great War Europe far behind, regarding it as a world and a way of life that had completely lost its way and meaning in the recent horrors. Thus her need to travel gradually became an awareness also of her need to explore within, and find meaning to her life, for herself; re-reading this book I was much more aware of her roaming as a quest for inner meaning and purpose, too.

Despite all her hopes, her sailing and navigation skills never got her anywhere exciting, and she found herself drawn to Asia, where perhaps the people and life would be different. She set off for Moscow by train with only a rucksack full of food, and stayed for months as a curious observer of the new and totally different world of the Soviet Union, though never deceived into imagining it a utopia, as many Westerners of the time were. There followed a number of lengthy trips into the Caucasus, to Central Asia, to China during the civil war and period of Japanese occupation of Manchukuo, from where she travelled back over the Himalayas to India in the company of English Times correspondent and traveller Peter Fleming (his account of this journey, in News From Tartary, is an excellent complement to hers), to Persia and Afghanistan, and finally to India, where she came to a halt.

Maillart was clearly profoundly changed by her experiences of these journeys, by the lives of others and their closer, more intimate connection with the world; in her late thirties, at the start of the Second World War, she declined to return to Europe but remained for several years in Southern India, exploring and practising the teachings of a well-known guru, living a very simple life with a cat as a companion…

Maillart supported herself and her frugal needs through her writings, photography and occasional film-making, and giving public lectures and conferences on the far-flung places she had visited; she had many contacts with well-known writers, travellers of her day.

Her present-day admirers and followers, in Europe rather than in Britain where she remains relatively little-known, seem to be attracted both by her travels and adventures, and her inner quest, reflecting, I suppose, the relative emptiness that more and more people find in our society and our civilisation, where money, material goods and consumption seem to be the main reason for existence. I find her story attractive and interesting, but I certainly don’t share her sense of adventure! Her enjoyment of the different, the other, and her search for deeper meaning to life I very much do share, and revisiting this book, particularly the closing chapters about the second half of her life, when she had largely retired to a small village in the Swiss mountains, I came to understand her better. There is no side to her, and a genuine rapport with those among whom she travels and shares a common humanity: in this, for me she resembles Wilfred Thesiger and Michael Asher. And yet in her restlessness she goes deeper, acknowledging our nomadic past where unending physical movement connects with our spiritual search for significance in a vast and beautiful world.

If you are interested, there is an informative website: http://www.ellamaillart.ch/index_en.php

Peter Frankopan: The Silk Roads – A New History of the World

March 26, 2016

616iX1X7ZaL._AA160_Peter Frankopan offers a new and different history of the world here, from the perspective of that key east-west artery of trade, civilisation, ideas and warfare over the last two and a half thousand years or so, the Silk Road.

In Ancient History at school, we never learned about the globalisation two millennia ago, when the Roman Empire looked eastwards; I didn’t know they traded with India. From William Dalrymple and others, I had been aware that Christianity in its early stages was an Asian rather than a European church, and ironically it was Constantine that endangered this; when I looked at maps, I was surprised I hadn’t realised how much nearer the Middle East and India were to Jerusalem, compared with us on the far-flung western extremities of Europe!

We learn about the close connections between the three peoples of the book with the rise of Islam in the seventh century; the internal wranglings of Islam were new to me, but obviously paralleled all those within the Christian church that I am familiar with. Some early Christians apparently thought Islam was another Christian heresy rather than a new religion…

The early Muslim empire became phenomenally wealthy; Byzantium’s weakness faced with the spread of Islam led to its calling on Western Christians for help and thus led to the Crusades, which stimulated both European and Muslim economic growth and trade immensely. Jews and Muslims co-existed peacefully especially after their expulsion from Spain after 1492; the Mongols, who ravaged Europe, eventually disappeared back to Asian, rating China as easier and better prey. The Black Death had even more devastating effects than I had known.

The centre of gravity of the world shifted to Europe with the discovery of the Americas…

As you can probably see, it’s a fascinating book filled with many new insights and perceptions into the growth and development of the world. Frankopan offers a careful and measured response to the information he assembles, and offers thoughtful and balanced analysis from a long-term perspective. At times, as the subject expands, the focus on the Silk Roads does seem to fade, particularly in the early modern period, though I finally saw how this couldn’t have been otherwise. Comparisons between different nations and parts of the world, and how and why they prospered or didn’t, are particularly enlightening.

However, for me, Frankopan is at his most interesting when he moves into more modern times. He makes clear the calamitous and thoroughly reprehensible behaviour of the British and the French in the Middle East at the time of the First World War; he is eye-opening on events, attitudes and decisions that created the problems and issues that still rage a century later. A very interesting idea is that the narrative of the First World War was rewritten after it was over, shifting the focus onto Germany as the enemy and threat to Britain, rather than Russia. The West, and latterly particularly the US comes across as even more crass, money-grubbing, racist and colonialist than I’d ever known (and I count myself pretty well-informed). Short-sightedness and short-termism have governed most of what the West has done through its interference.

It’s an eye-opener of a book. No doubt, professional historians will take issue with some of his analysis and conclusions. This amateur is still taking it all in…

William Dalrymple: In Xanadu

March 9, 2016

419DJZH9NFL._AA160_Dalrymple sets off to retrace the steps of Marco Polo, to the legendary Xanadu, in China. It’s a crazy undertaking, worthy of a student in his carefree student days – though his time is limited by the need to get back to Cambridge to prepare for his finals…

He’s travelling in 1986, so not all parts of the journey are straightforward, or even allowed. Travel between Israel and Arab nations requires a certain amount of detouring, Afghanistan incompletely off-limits, and crossing the areas of China through which Polo travelled required subterfuge and illegality, passing as it does, right next to their nuclear testing grounds.

He veers between being humorous – his tone is often bemused when he encounters various oddities of travel and people – and very knowledgeable about many interesting places along the route, which is basically the ancient Silk Road. Sometimes events, accidents, conversations take on a tinge of farce; sometimes he surprises us with details and contextual background to places and events we are perhaps vaguely familiar with. This is what I’m looking for from good travel writing: knowledge, interest and enthusiasm from the traveller. The maps are rather on the vague side, though. At times, he reminded me of Robert Byron, who travelled in the Middle East in the 1930s, and who describes, and conveys a sense of place, like very few other writers I’ve come across.

It’s an uneven work, by which I mean that some sections are leisurely and the journey and places are fully described, whilst sizeable actions of the journey are dashed through against the clock, with nothing seen or remarked on, let alone described. Such are student travels, in my experience, though I never went this far afield. Despite the haphazard voyage, the many scrapes and adventures he gets into along with his companions (two different women at different times) he nevertheless succeeds, daringly, in attaining his ultimate objective. This demands respect. But his later travels in From the Holy Mountain are far more engaging, less about him and more about what he saw.

Tim Cope: On the Trail of Genghis Khan

January 9, 2016

51v22B8bKZL._AA160_It took me rather a while to warm to Tim Cope‘s adventures; initially the idea of trying to retrace the tracks of the Mongols under Genghis Khan from Mongolia to Hungary – the full extent of their maraudings – seemed rather self-indulgent, and this wasn’t helped by the account of his girlfriend accompanying the early part of his journey. But I had misjudged him; once she had gone back to Europe, and he was well advanced into Mongolia and heading for Kazakhstan, it settled into a fascinating account of a journey and the history and cultures of the land he was passing through.

As he travelled, he clearly developed – and, more importantly, perhaps, managed to convey clearly to his readers – a real empathy with, and understanding of, the peoples through whose lands he was travelling and the arduousness of their lives; there was an openness about him, a wish to understand and to learn about a people who had built one of the greatest empires ever, terrorising everyone in their wake. With Cope, we learn about these nomads, their necessary wanderings and their relations with their livestock. We learn about a completely different way of life that we might never otherwise imagine, one necessitated by a combination of geography, weather and force of circumstances; we can see perhaps a certain attraction to it, at least in contrast with the crazy and hectic pace of life in, and the rampant consumerism of the ‘advanced’ West. The reader learns much from Cope’s account, which is supported by copious and helpful footnotes and excellent maps (though I did find Bloomsbury’s choice to use American English spellings in an English edition rather annoying).

I found myself re-thinking some of my earlier judgements about there not being real opportunities for travel and exploration nowadays because of how accessible everywhere is; Cope’s journey reminded me of the travels of Ella Maillart and Peter Fleming through similar territory in the 1930s, and I was reminded of the accounts I’ve read of demanding travels by William Dalrymple, Sylvain Tesson and Bernard Ollivier (all of whom you can read about elsewhere on this blog if you search for them).

And yet, things are not the same: Cope had the benefits of GPS, mobile phone, and the ability to take a break and fly off home or anywhere else if he really needed to, advantages which earlier travellers did not have, and which do help him at several points on his journey. But I do not think that such ‘luxuries’ detract from his achievement, and they cannot take away his genuine commitment to the journey or love of the peoples and places he encountered. And by the end one can see that he was far more affected by his journey than he ever expected to be.

I learnt much about places, peoples and history; I was further shocked, if that is possible, by the account of the post-Soviet decline, alcoholism and appalling corruption endemic in the entire region, which he catalogues, usually impartially. There’s a good deal of food for thought about world economics and power politics there; no nation or system comes off well from it, and, as usual, it’s the ordinary folk who suffer most. A very worthwhile read, and I shall look out further of his writings.

Jonathan Tucker: The Silk Road Art and History

December 9, 2015

31GFEU8hIDL._AA160_If you have read may of my posts about travel writing on this blog, you will know that I’m fascinated by the Silk Road, that collection of routes (for there was no single route, like the M1) which linked East and West from the times of Alexander the Great onwards, allowing people to trade, and to exchange ideas and knowledge. This book is clearly a labour of love: it is helpfully illustrated by many maps of all the different routes that are known, and liberally illustrated with hundreds of wonderful photos of people, places, artefacts and treasures.

The fact that the routes have existed for over two thousand years does put our own world, with its empires and trade routes into a different perspective: how long will what we have invented or created endure? Equally, although these two millennia were never times of unalloyed peace and neighbourliness, it is fair to observe that Christians, Muslims and Buddhists managed to co-exist, to be interested in each other, to preserve contact, to trade, and to learn from one another. Maybe that was easier in a world full of unknowns and uncertainties – after all, travellers never knew whether they would reach their destination…

I marvelled at the vastness of the spaces along the routes, in lands where there was room for unwanted and no longer used buildings just to be left to decay and gradually disappear naturally, crumbling in peace after the people had long gone. They continue to crumble: it is also interesting to realise how the dryness of the desert treat the remains of human settlements, compared with the damp, humid and temperate lands we inhabit: out there, there are reamins of wooden buildings erected over a thousand years ago: shades of Ozymandias, I felt…

I was saddened to think how many of the places described and illustrated are nowadays inaccessible because of ongoing conflicts, and also realised how much had been destroyed by fanatics and fundamentalists since the book was written – the Buddhas of Bamiyan, the Roman remains of the city of Palmyra in Syria.

This is probably the book to have on the history and culture of the Silk Roads, as a companion to any other reading on the subject.

No-go areas?

November 15, 2015

I try to eschew overt political comment in my posts, because this blog is meant to be primarily about books and literature. However, the combination of the recent appalling events in Paris, and my enjoyment of travel writing combined to produce a small epiphany this morning.

Most of the travel writing I read is about areas of the planet that, over my lifetime, have virtually become no-go areas for (safe) travel. When I was a teenager, yes not all of the planet was safe to visit, but as far as I can recall, South East Asia was the major danger zone, because of the Vietnam War, which ended forty years ago. Now when I mentally review the planet, the entire Middle East stretching as far as India, the states that once formed the southern Soviet Union, most of North Africa, the Sahara and Sudan are pretty much off-limits. I knew people in my younger days who hitch-hiked from England to India, via Afghanistan – how far might one get nowadays, I wonder?

The regions which have interested me most as a reader have been the Middle East, the Silk Road countries, the Sahara and the Soviet Union. I’m astonished when I look at what’s happened to so much of the world and realise the changes which have taken place. And I’m saddened that so much of the mayhem and death which has blighted these countries has been due to interference from outside, and especially from the West. I cannot perceive anything positive or of longterm value that we have achieved by this.

I was particularly struck by something I read during the past week or so, written by an Arab traveller in the twelfth century, who was either on his way to perform the hajj or making his way home from it, I can’t remember which and it isn’t important. He was travelling through Palestine, at the time of the Crusades, and passed somewhere where Christians were in the process of besieging a Muslim stronghold. He and his companions encountered no problems passing through the region, because they were travellers about their own business, and the siege was nothing to do with them! We may well be over eight centuries later in time, but in attitudes and behaviour?

I’m a quiet life merchant generally speaking; I don’t mind the small adventure of driving hundreds of miles across Europe to visit places and people I want to see, but I can do without extra excitement, thank you. And in these pages I’ve often written appreciatively of explorers who have taken great personal risks, venturing into the unknown or unpredictable on their travels and written entertainingly and knowledgeably about what they saw and who they met. I’m struck by how much of humanity’s past history there is in some of these newly-forbidden places, particularly the Middle East. I know that people are more important than places and buildings, and yet I am always horrified when some relic of human history is destroyed by ignorant fundamentalists – the Bamiyan Buddhas, or the city of Palmyra are two recent instances. In some ways we are an astonishing species, capable of great things, and in other ways we seem collectively not very intelligent at all.

So, for all those places which I cannot imagine ever getting to see with my own eyes, I am very grateful to the travellers, explorers and writers who have brought them to my sofa.

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