S. Frederick Starr – Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane

S. Frederick Starr – Lost Enlightenment: Central Asia’s Golden Age from the Arab Conquest to Tamerlane

It’s fairly well known that the Islamic world preserved classical texts during the dark interlude between Rome and the Renaissance. Plato’s dialogues, Aristotle’s taxonomies, and Galen’s medicine owe their survival to careful Islamic caretakers. It’s also fairly well known that Islamic scholars during this period made important original contributions to math (algebra is an Arabic word), astronomy, philosophy, and medicine. Of course, the same movement also gave us the word “gibberish” from the name of the scholar Jabir ibn Hayyan, who was as indecipherable in his time as he is in ours. But then, few things in the world are purely good or bad.

Starr has put together a superb intellectual history of the Arabic Enlightenment. He doesn’t quite give literature or the arts their due, but that was intentional. Nor is this a larger survey history of the Arab world during its golden age. Starr instead prefers to focus on philosophy, science, and medicine, and covers them thoroughly, while also paying some attention to art and architecture. He also brings the time’s leading personalities to life. Ibn Sina (b. 980), better known in English as Avicenna, for example, comes across as brilliant, and well aware of it. Starr give him a thorough biographical treatment of both his accomplishments and his personal life. Someone who was previously little more than a name I associated with a period in history became a person with likes and dislike, triumphs, pathos, and flaws.

Other figures get similar treatment, and Starr also tells the story of larger movements, such as Sufism, which came to prominence in Iran’s Safavid dynasty and focused on more ritual and mystic elements. Starr also introduces the reader to the heights of Baghdad’s cultural accomplishments, to the Seljuk Turks on the Arabic world’s western periphery, the terrors of Genghis Khan and his descendants, as well as the economic and intellectual contacts and exchange they made possible

Starr finally carries the story forward well into the 15th century, up to the conqueror Timur (Tamerlane, d. 1405)’s descendants. Most prominent among these was his grandson Ulugh Beg, known as the Astronomer King, who was an accomplished scientist as well as a king.

This is a book I wish I had read years ago. Despite intentionally leaving out major aspects of culture and history, it is wide-ranging. It accessibly covers people, movements, events, and accomplishments that are still largely unknown to a Western audience, including this reader. And it satisfies my economist’s interest in interconnectedness, openness, exchange, and how culture can help or hinder prosperity. It pairs well with Justin Marozzi’s biography Tamerlane: Sword of Islam, Conqueror of the World, which I read around the same time.

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