One day in October 1797, the English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge took a few grains of laudanum – an opium-based extract used as medicine – and sat down to read Purchas His Pilgrimage, a collection of classical travelers’ tales. One of the most famous entries in the book was Marco Polo’s description of the palace of Kublai Khan in Shangdu in Inner Mongolia. “In Xanadu,” Polo remembered, “did Cublai Can build a stately palace, encompassing sixteen miles of plain ground with a wall, wherein are fertile meadows, pleasant springs, delightful streams, and all sorts of beast and chase and game, and in the middle thereof a sumptuous house of pleasure, which may be removed from place to place.” Soon Coleridge fell asleep. In his sleep he had a vision of Kublai Khan’s palace. It was a sublime apparition, Coleridge explained when he eventually woke up, which inspired both longing and dread:

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
a stately pleasure-dome decree,
where Alph, the sacred river, ran
through caverns measureless to man
down to a sunless sea. …

A savage place! As holy and enchanted
as a’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
by woman wailing for her demon lover. …

A story missing from Purchas’ collection was the account of Kublai Khan’s palace written by the Persian fourteenth-century historian Rashid-al-Din Hamadani. Here too a dream features prominently. In Rashid-al-Din’s version, however, it is the emperor who does the dreaming. Kublai Khan, we are told, had a dream of a magnificent palace. When he woke up he promptly instructed his architects to construct a similar building and before long the palace in Shangdu was completed. This was the palace which Marco Polo later came to visit.

Curiously, the palace first appeared in a dream, both to the English poet and to Kublai Khan himself. Even more curiously, Coleridge could not have been influenced by Rashid-al-Din’s account since it was translated into European languages only in the nineteenth-century. It is the palace which we see in our dreams which is real and eternal, we can conclude, whereas the palaces which from time to time are created here on earth only are its ephemeral copies. In the future, another ruler or a poet will dream about it again, and it will once again come to appear on earth.

External links:

Librivox, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “Kubla Khan”

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In 1271, the merchants Niccolò and Maffeo Polo left their native city of Venice and set sail for the east. The two brothers had already done business in Constantinople and in the Crimea, and they had already visited the lands of the Mongols. When they returned to Europe in 1269 they carried a message from Kublai Khan to the pope in Rome. Having delivered the letter, they were now on their way back to Asia again. They had a paiza with them, a small tablet in gold, which gave them free passage, lodgings and horses throughout Mongol lands. With them as they left Venice was Niccolò’s son, Marco, who was 17 years old at the time.

Marco Polo was to find particular favor with the Great Khan who made him an official at his court. He learned to speak Mongolian together with several other languages and he traveled around the vast empire visiting lands which no European previously had seen. His account of the splendors of the khan’s palace is particularly famous, together with his description of Kinsay, today’s Hangzhou in the south. The Polos came back to Venice as wealthy men and the many stories Marco told about his adventures amazed everyone who heard them. He was known as Il milione, referring to the millions of marvelous tales he would tell.

Yet it may be that Marco Polo never actually visited China. It is striking, for example, how he never mentions Chinese customs such as foot-binding or tea-drinking, and it is strange that place-names consistently are given in Persian rather than in Mongol or Chinese. This is not, however, a reason to dismiss the text as such. Despite omissions and mistakes, it contains many details which we know from other sources to be correct. Marco Polo’s book – or the book associated with a person by that name – had a tremendous impact on European readers, stirring up elaborate fantasies of the exotic East. The most famous reader was perhaps Christopher Columbus who had his own copy of the book on which he had scribbled extensive handwritten notes in the margins.

External links:

In Our Time: “Marco Polo”

The Book of Ser Marco Polo, the Venetian, concerning the kingdoms and marvels of the East, volume 1

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Tengrism has historically been the predominant religion among the peoples of Central Asia. Tengrism combines animism with shamanism and the cult of ancestors; it worships Tengri, a supreme power which is associated with the sky. Tengri is the force which determines everything from the weather to the fate of individuals and nations. Tengri, say Tengrists, is the unknowable One who knows everything and who judges people’s actions as good or bad and rewards them accordingly. Tengrists believe in spirits too. There are spirits of trees, mountains, planets and ancestors, and they are either evil, benevolent, or of mixed temperament. Chosen mediums can contact the spirits and convince them to intercede on behalf of human beings or to reveal the future to us. Some shamans have powers that resemble those of spirits, like the power of prophecy or the ability to cast spells. Genghis Khan was a Tengrist, and so were all Mongol rulers until the early fourteenth-century CE when some of them converted to Islam. To this day it is common for Mongols to refer to their country as Munkh khukh tengri, the land of the “eternal blue sky.” This is not a weather report as much as a hope concerning divine protection.

There has been a revival of Tengrism in Central Asia since the fall of the Soviet Union. Or rather, some academics and politicians have sought to promote Tengrism as an indigenous alternative to foreign religions such as Christianity and Islam. Neo-Tengrists are particularly active in Kyrgyzstan where a scientific center for Tengrist studies has been set up in the capital Bishkek. Observers argue that 60 percent of the rural population follow Tengrist traditions.

In 2011 a proponent of Tengrism, Kubanychbek Tezekbaev, was put on trial in Kyrgyzstan for inciting religious and ethnic hatred because of statements he made in an interview describing Muslim mullahs as ”former alcoholics and murderers.” Tezekbaev is an outspoken critic of what he sees as the growing influence of fundamentalist Islam in his country, especially among young people, calling it a danger to the nation’s future. Tezekbaev has spoken out against the use of Islamic head scarfs among women and urged young men not to grow long beards. He calls himself a half-Muslim. “I don’t fully follow Islam, I just partially follow some Muslim rituals. I am a pure Kyrgyz.”

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Lev Nikolayevich Gumilev, 1912-1992, was a Soviet historian, anthropologist and translator, and the son of two celebrated Russian poets, Nikolay Gumilev and Anna Akhmatova. His father was shot when Lev was only 7 years old and he spent most of his youth in Soviet labor camps. His mother wrote paeans to Stalin to save her life but she never managed to help her son. After Stalin’s death, Gumilev began working at the Hermitage Museum in Moscow where he became interested in the history of the Khazars and other people of the Central Asian steppes. Gumilev was a neo-Eurasianist and he regarded Russian identity as closer to the identity of the peoples of Central Asia than to Europeans.

The Eurasianist movement originally arose among the Russian diaspora in Western Europe in the 1920s. Although the Eurasianists were staunchly anti-Communist, they defended the October Revolution of 1917 as a way to protect Russia against European capitalism and its materialistic values. Yet when their main organization in 1929 turned out to be sponsored by the Soviet regime, the Eurasianists lost credibility. In today’s Russia, Eurasianist arguments are used to defend the notion of a “Greater Russia,” a Russia which is based on Central Asian rather than European values, and which once again incorporates Central Asian states within its territory. A “Eurasian Economic Community” was established in October 2000, with Russia, Belarus, Kazakhstan, Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Uzbekistan as members. Some observers regard this organization as a way of recreating a Soviet-style empire or perhaps a twenty-first-century version of the Golden Horde.

Gumilev’s most notorious argument was that the Mongol invasion never happened. Rather, he said, the small Russian principalities concluded a defensive alliance with the Mongols in order to repel the European forces which had attacked them from the west. [Read more:The Mongol invasion of Europe”] Gumilev supported the nationalist movements of Tatars, Kazakhs, and other Turkic peoples, as well as of Mongolia, but his ideas were rejected by the Soviet authorities and he, much as his parents, was unable to publish anything he wrote. This changed when the Soviet Union was disintegrating in the 1980s and Gumilev came to be widely read by nationalists in both Russia and in the former Soviet republics of Central Asia. A monument was erected in Gumilev’s honor in Kazan, Tatarstan, in 2005; he was featured on stamps in Kazakhstan in 2012, and a university in Astana, the Kazakh capital, is named after him.

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The Byzantine Empire, 330-1453 CE, was originally the eastern part of the Roman Empire, where emperor Constantine established a capital, Constantinople, in 330 CE. When Rome was overrun and sacked by various wandering tribes, the empire survived in the east. The Byzantine Empire was to last for another thousand years and it comprised at the height of its power all lands around the eastern Mediterranean, including North Africa and Egypt. The Byzantines spoke Greek, they were Christian and they spread their language and their religion to all parts of their empire. An educated person in Egypt or Syria prior to the eighth century was likely to have been Christian and Greek speaking.

An important reason for the longevity of the Byzantine empire was its aggressive use of diplomacy. They set up a “Bureau of Barbarians” which gathered intelligence on the empire’s rivals and prepared diplomats for their missions abroad. The diplomats negotiated treaties and formed alliances with other rulers, but they also used diplomacy as a way to make friends of the enemies of their enemies. Lavish gifts were bestowed on the neighbors of a state which threatened to attack in order to convince them to join the Byzantine alliance. And foreign governments were often undermined by various underhanded tactics. In Constantinople there was a whole stable of exiled royalty who the Byzantines were ready to reinstall on their thrones if an occasion presented itself.

Constantinople was thoroughly sacked by the participants in the Fourth Crusade in 1204, an event which left bitter resentment and strong anti-Catholic feelings among Orthodox Christians. In the thirteenth-century, the Turks began expanding into the Anatolian peninsula. Eventually the once vast Byzantine empire came to comprise little but the capital and the surrounding countryside. Constantinople fell to the Turks in 1453 and the large cathedral, Hagia Sophia – the largest in Christendom – was converted into a mosque. The fall of Constantinople is still remembered as a great disaster by the Greeks while Turks celebrate it as ordained by Allah and foretold by the prophet Muhammad himself.

“Byzantine” is an English adjective which means “devious” and “scheming” but also “intricate” and “involved.” Learning about the diplomatic practices of the empire, it is easy to understand why. But then again, their diplomacy served the Byzantines well.

External links:

History of Philosophy, “Purple Prose: Byzantine Political Philosophy”

In Our Time, “Byzantium”

Ibn Rushd, also known as “Averroes,” was a scholar and a philosopher born in Córdoba in al-Andalus in 1126 CE. He is famous for his detailed commentaries on Aristotle, whose work he strongly defended against those who regarded him as an infidel. Ibn Rushd, that is, defended reason against revelation. Or rather, he regarded revelation, as presented in the Quran, as knowledge suitable above all for the illiterate masses. Ordinary people are literal-minded and they need miracles in order to believe. Miracles do indeed happen, Ibn Rushd argued, but they must always correspond to the laws which govern the universe. If not, the universe will become arbitrary and unintelligible.

The works of Ibn Rushd came to have a far-reaching influence on intellectual developments in Europe, in particular on Thomas Aquinas. Aquinas, the Church Father whose Summa theologica laid the foundations for all theological debates in the Middle Ages, asked himself the very same questions as Ibn Rushd. He too wanted to know how to reconcile reason with revelation. Aquinas too was a great fan of Aristotole, and although he disagreed with many of Ibn Rushd’s specific arguments, his general conclusions were basically the same. Aquinas always referred to Ibn Rushd with the greatest respect, calling him “the Commentator,” much as he called Aristotle “the Philosopher.”

The seminal contribution which Ibn Rushd made to the intellectual development of Europe had no counterpart in the Muslim world itself. Here Ibn Rushd left no school and no disciples, and his works were barely read. It was instead only at the end of the nineteenth-century that he was rediscovered. The immediate reason was a book by the French Orientalist Ernest Renan, Averroës et l’Averroïsme, 1852, in which Renan made a strong case for Ibn Rushd’s importance. Translating Renan’s book into Arabic, Muslim intellectuals discovered exactly what they had been looking for – a Arab who had made a seminal contribution not only to Arabic civilization but to the civilization of the world. To some contemporary Muslim intellectuals, the work of Ibn Rushd has become a symbol of a rationalistic intellectual tradition, in tune with modern society, liberalism and a scientific outlook on life.

External links:

In Our Time, “Muslims Spain”

Charles Burnett, “Ibn Rushd”

In Our Time, “Averroes”

History of Philosophy, “Back to basics: Averroes on reason and religion”

Abu I-Hasan, 789-857 CE, nicknamed “Ziryab” from the Arabic for “black bird,” was a musician, singer, composer, poet and teacher, who lived and worked in Baghdad, in Northern Africa, and during some thirty years also in Al-Andalus in Spain. More than anything he was a master of the oud, the Arabic lute, to which he added a fifth pair of strings and began playing with a pick rather than with the fingers. Many good musicians assembled at the court in Córdoba, but Ziryab was the best of them all. He established a school where the Arabic style of music was taught for successive generations, creating a tradition which was to have a profound influence on all subsequent Spanish music, not least on the flamenco.

The first references to flamenco can be found only in the latter part of the eighteenth-century CE and then it was associated with the Romani people. Yet it is obvious that the flamenco is a product of the uniquely Andalusian miscegenation of cultures. The music does indeed sound Romani but at the same time also Arabic, Jewish and Spanish. According to one theory, the word “flamenco” comes from the Arabic fellah mengu, meaning “expelled peasant.” The fellah mengu were Arabs who remained in Spain after the fall of Granada in 1492 and some of them joined Romani communities in order to avoid persecution. The Arabs and the Roma must have played guitar together and danced.

As for Ziryab, he was also ninth century Córdoba‘s leading authority on questions of food and fashion. He was said to have changed his clothes according to the weather and the season, and he had the idea of wearing different dress for mornings, afternoons and evenings. He invented a new type of deodorant, a toothpaste, and promoted the idea of taking daily baths. He also made it fashionable for men to shave their beards. In addition, Ziryab popularized the concept of three-course meals, consisting of soup, main course and dessert, and he was the person who introduced the asparagus into Europe. If a society’s level of civilization can be determined by its standard of hygiene, Ziryab had a profoundly civilizing impact on southern Spain.

External links:

In Our Time, “Muslim Spain”

Mosheh ben Maimon was a scholar, judge and medical doctor, born into an influential Jewish family in Córdoba in 1135 CE. He is known as “Musa Ibn Maymun” in Arabic and as “Moses Maimonides” in Latin. Ben Maimon was trained both in the Jewish and the Arabic intellectual traditions and he wrote in Judeo-Arabic, a classical form of Arabic which used the Hebrew script. Ben Maimon is most famous as the author of the fourteen volume Mishneh Torah, a sprawling collection containing all the laws and regulations that govern Jewish life. The Mishneh Torah is widely read and commented on to this day.

In 1148, when the Almohad rulers of al-Andalus imposed their harsh reforms on their subjects, Christians and Jews were required to either convert or be killed. Ben Maimon and his family escaped to Egypt which at the time was run by the Fatimid caliphs, a far more tolerant regime. In Cairo he established himself as an interpreter of the Torah and as a teacher in the Jewish community. This is also when he wrote his most famous philosophical work, Guide for the Perplexed.

We are very knowledgeable about Ben Maimon’s life thanks to the Cairo Geniza, a collection of up to 300,000 fragments of manuscripts discovered in the synagogue in Cairo. Since Jews were afraid to throw away any piece of paper which may have the name of God written on it, they ended up with a very large collection of scraps of papers of various kinds. The texts were preserved to this day in the Geniza and this includes Ben Maimon’s personal notes and correspondence.

Ben Maimon is buried in Tiberias, in what today is Israel. On his death, the story goes, he wanted to be buried in the land of his forefathers. Yet Ben Maimon would no doubt have objected to being made into an Israeli citizen after his death. More than anyone else Ben Maimon symbolized the very tight connection that has existed between the Muslim and the Jewish heritage. Meanwhile the Jewish community in Cairo which as recently as in the 1920s comprised some 80,000 people has dwindled to fewer than 200 today. There is a tradition among them that Ben Maimon’s body never was transferred to Tiberias and that he still is buried in Cairo.

External links:

In Our Time, “Maimonides”

History of Philosophy Without Any Gaps, “Sarah Stroumsa on Maimonides”

15 Minute History, “The Fatimids”

Zoroastrianism, just as Christianity, Judaism and Islam, is a monotheistic religion. Zoroastrians call their deity Ahura Mazda, translated as “enlightened wisdom.” Zoroaster, or Zarathustra, who founded the faith, was born northeast of the Caspian Sea most probably some time 1,200 BCE. After the fourth-century CE, Zoroastrianism was the official and publicly supported religion of the Sasanian empire, located in today’s Iran.

Zoroaster was the author of the Yazna, a book of hymns and incantations. The religion taught in the Yazna makes a sharp distinction between good and evil. The task of the faithful is to learn to distinguish the two and to choose the good. Like other monotheistic religions, Zoroastrianism grapples with the question of how the belief in one god can be combined with the existence of evil in the world. The Zoroastrian answer is that good and evil are choices which confront human beings, not entities that compete for power. Questions of correct conduct are consequently a crucial part of the faith. Zoroastrian rituals rely heavily on fire which is regarded as a holy force. Fire temples, attended by priests, were constructed and officially sponsored throughout the Sasanian empire.

Zoroastrianism had a powerful influence on the other monotheistic religions of the Middle East. Many of its themes – questions of the afterlife and the end of the world, issues of judgment and salvation – feature prominently in Judaism, Christianity and Islam too. These religions too have the same obsession with questions of good conduct. Moreover, Zoroastrianism was the first religion which regarded people as equals before god, and gave every believer the opportunity to attain salvation.

External links:

In Our Time, “Zoroastrianism”